CHICAGO – Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s controversial proposal to go after gang leaders’ financial assets in civil court in an effort to combat violence received key committee approval Wednesday, but could face a closer vote at City Council.
The Committee on Public Safety voted 10-4 to advance the ordinance to the full City Council, setting up a vote as soon as Feb. 23. Alderpeople voting against the ordinance included two of Lightfoot’s handpicked committee chairs, Ald. Harry Osterman (48th) and Ald. Rod Sawyer (6th), joined by Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) and Ald. Matt Martin (47th).
But the debate was dominated by alderpeople who joined Thursday’s meeting but are not members of the committee and could not could vote on the ordinance. That suggests a tougher path to secure backing from the full City Council, which has more members of the progressive and democratic socialist caucuses than the committee that advanced the ordinance.
Lightfoot floated the ordinance in September 2021, saying it was a necessary “tool” to dismantle “gangs that are wreaking havoc, and in particular, take away the profit motive from them by seizing assets that they have been able to purchase because of their violent activity in our neighborhoods.”
But the proposal faced immediate criticism from some alderpeople and the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, who said “civil asset forfeiture is not the vehicle for reducing gun violence in the city.” A group of 50 civil rights attorneys sent Lightfoot a letter predicting the city could face legal liability if the ordinance were adopted.
Gangs are also not responsible for the majority of homicides in Chicago, according to the Chicago Police Department’s own data. The Trace analyzed 34,000 shootings in the past decade and found less than three in 10 were considered gang-related.
Ahead of Wednesday’s vote, city officials argued the ordinance would create a crime deterrent for gang leaders fearful of the city hitting their pocketbooks. But when pressed by alderpeople, they admitted they did not have evidence to back up the claim.
John O’Malley, deputy mayor for public safety, said, “if it were not a deterrent, I don’t think asset forfeiture would exist.”
“One of their biggest fears is us coming after their money,” said Daniel O’Shea, deputy chief in the Chicago Police Department. “They don’t really fear the criminal justice system, they’re not really seeing the penalties of the old days where they’re seeing the heavy penitentiary time, but they do fear us taking their cars, their property, their businesses that they’re laundering money through.”
Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), an original co-sponsor of the ordinance, argued it could be a “tool” to respond to resident complaints about “those that are causing the most harm to our communities” in his West Side ward.
“Crime is a major issue here, and what our community is saying is ‘we want tools that are going to help curtail the activity that is happening on the street,’’’ Ervin said.
Data provided by city and police officials have shown the cost to litigate these cases could outpace the financial assets the city could recoup. Half of the profit the city receives from the cases would be returned to the community, Lightfoot has said.
Were the proposed ordinance in place, the city could have tried 258 cases in 2020 and 220 in 2021, according to the police department, representing $571,390 and $539,316 in potential financial assets to be turned over to the city.
City attorneys estimated it could cost $7,000 for its attorneys to bring a case against a sole defendant, and up to $1 million and 1,500 hours or more in attorney time to litigate a case with multiple defendants through trial, according to city data shared by Ald. Maria Hadden (49th).
Hadden said in a Twitter post the ordinance could “encourage two powerful city departments (police and the city’s law department) to push the limits on respecting civil rights and exhaust valuable time and tax dollars in exchange for negligible financial gain.”
Steve Kane of the Law Department said no additional attorneys would be hired to pursue the cases, but that the department wouldn’t pursue more “more than a few cases, certainly in the first year,” before they learned more about how to effectively utilize the ordinance.
Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22nd) said he’ll vote against the measure in City Council and asked if it was a sign the police department was moving away from a “data driven” policing strategy.
“I think this is an ’80’s-based strategy to 2022 problems,” he said. “The fact is, there really aren’t these hierarchies any longer, and gun violence, which is what we should be worried about here, is largely driven by interpersonal disputes, social media issues…”
The ordinance mirrors a state law that allows municipalities to sue gangs and gang members in civil court. It would allow the city’s corporation counsel to bypass state and federal prosecutors to pursue the cases.
“This provides a tool to pursue assets … without waiting for a response from the U.S. Attorney’s Office or the Cook County State’s Attorney Office,” O’Malley said.
The original proposal was rewritten to target suspected gang leaders rather than lower-level members, has a stricter definition of who qualifies as a gang leader and requires those targeted for asset seizure to be notified of the civil court case against them.
The amended ordinance also added a definition of a gang leader as “any gang member” who is at least 18 years old and “exercises directorial, governing, leadership, managerial, or policymaking authority in that gang.”
Those who own the property that could be seized, such as a vehicle, would have the opportunity to prove they “had no knowledge that the property was used for or acquired through street-gang related activity.”
If a vehicle is seized, a family member of the owner of the vehicle could have it transferred to their name if they live with the alleged gang member and are able to prove the “vehicle is their only source of transportation and the court determines that the financial hardship” to the family member would outweigh the financial benefit to the city.
O’Malley told the committee the changes would cause the city to prove the defendant is a gang leader and the defendant’s “gang has engaged in a pattern of criminal activity, including at least two criminal acts in the preceding five years.” One of the criminal acts must have been a violent crime.
The ordinance also allows for fines of between $15,000 and $30,000 and potential jail time of up to 180 days for illegal gun possession.
The City Council is set to vote on the ordinance next week, but it could be stalled if any two aldermen utilized a parliamentary maneuver to block a vote until the next meeting.
The ordinance would take effect immediately if it is approved by a two-thirds majority of City Council. If it is approved by less than a two-thirds majority, it takes effect 10 days later.
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