By Susan Shelley.
U.S. Supreme Court justices don’t patrol the streets of Los Angeles, but you might be surprised at how much the justices are responsible for what goes on in your neighborhood.
As one example, judge for yourself the long-term consequences of the court’s decision in 1972 to throw out a law in Jacksonville, Florida, that allowed authorities to fine people $500 or lock them up for 90 days for being “rogues and vagabonds, or dissolute persons who go about begging.”
Jacksonville’s vagrancy law specifically made it a crime for people to be “common gamblers, persons who use juggling or unlawful games or plays, common drunkards, common night walkers, thieves, pilferers or pickpockets, traders in stolen property, lewd, wanton and lascivious persons, keepers of gambling places, common railers and brawlers, persons wandering or strolling around from place to place without any lawful purpose or object, habitual loafers, disorderly persons” or to be “neglecting all lawful business and habitually spending their time by frequenting houses of ill fame, gaming houses, or places where alcoholic beverages are sold or served, persons able to work but habitually living upon the earnings of their wives or minor children.”
In Papachristou v. City of Jacksonville, the Supreme Court struck down that law, ruling that it was unconstitutionally vague.
The justices knew very well that vagrancy laws had a horrible history of being enacted and enforced in a racially discriminatory manner. Sweeping them away in 1972 was an act of good intentions.
But in 2017, the court’s decision to crack down on what Justice William O. Douglas called the “unfettered discretion” of police may look a little different to you, especially if you fear for your safety and your neighborhood when encampments suddenly appear on the sidewalks and police are very limited in what they can do about it.
Another Supreme Court ruling that has affected safety on the streets is the 2011 decision in Brown v. Plata. By a vote of 5-4, the justices upheld a lower court ruling that ordered California to release more than 30,000 state prison inmates in order to relieve overcrowding.
“I fear that today’s decision, like prior prisoner release orders, will lead to a grim roster of victims,” Justice Samuel Alito, one of the four dissenting justices, wrote. “Common sense and experience counsel greater caution.”
But common sense was one vote short that day, and the result in California was AB 109, the prison realignment law that moved the overcrowding down to the county jails and ultimately put more criminals on the streets.
In the wake of AB 109, voters in California passed Proposition 47 in 2014, which changed some drug and theft crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, and in 2016, at the governor’s urging, voters passed Proposition 57 to enable early release of some state prison inmates. How much these measures have contributed to the recent rise in crime can perhaps be debated, but what’s certain is that the Supreme Court’s ruling on prison overcrowding had consequences.
Another public safety issue, the right to carry a gun for self-protection, is now before the court.
On Thursday the Supreme Court will hold its first conference with nine justices since the passing of Justice Antonin Scalia last year. Neil Gorsuch was sworn in on Monday.
At their conference, the justices may decide whether or not to hear the case of Peruta v. California, formerly called Peruta v. County of San Diego. Edward Peruta applied for a permit to carry a concealed weapon, but the county sheriff denied it. Peruta sued, arguing that his Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms was violated by the policy of rarely granting permits, because concern for personal safety was not considered “good cause.”
Does that policy violate the Second Amendment? We’ll all find out together.
In 2008, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in District of Columbia v. Heller that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to own a gun, and in 2010 the justices ruled 5-4 in McDonald v. Chicago that the right is protected against the actions of state governments as well as the federal government. But the question about the right to carry that gun outside the home has not yet been addressed by the high court.
The Peruta case, if the justices decide to hear it, could establish new rules that states must follow when law-abiding citizens apply for a permit to carry a concealed weapon. Or not.
Where will Justice Gorsuch come down on the issue?
We’ll all find out together.
Susan Shelley is a columnist and member of the editorial board of the Southern California News Group, and the author of the book, “How Trump Won.”