In July 2009, a three-member panel of the federal court of appeals for the District of Columbia effectively ruled that well-off suburbanites are entitled to protect themselves from crime and other serious threats but residents of poor neighborhoods are not.
Gated communities have spread across the United States since the 1970s. By some estimates, more than 8 million residents lived in 20,000 gated communities in the late 1990s, and the numbers have increased rapidly since. Gated communities impose tight controls on neighborhood access, requiring non-residents seeking entry to show that they have a reasonable purpose.
As the federal appeals court acknowledged, a wave of “violence… has plagued the Trinidad neighborhood in Northeast Washington, DC for many years.” Conditions had reached the point in early June 2008 that there had been 25 recent assaults involving firearms, resulting in 5 deaths. On May 31, 2008, the neighborhood experienced a triple homicide. If this had been the suburbs, the National Guard might have been called out.
Taking a page from the suburbs, the District of Columbia police department established (temporary) checkpoints on entry into the Trinidad neighborhood. While the program was in effect for several weeks, out of 951 vehicles seeking to enter, 48 were denied entry. One of the drivers sued, alleging her rights had been violated. A lower district court ruled for the city but the federal appeals court in Caneisha Mills v. District of Columbia overturned this decision. The appeals court decision was written by David Sentelle, a Reagan appointee in 1985. Presumably, he saw the case as an individual civil rights matter, even as he effectively dismissed the collective rights of the neighborhood residents to their own personal safety. Continue reading