Thursday, November 12, 2009

Civil Gang Injunctions: A Partial Solution to Gang Related Violence

Today, gang violence plagues many urban communities around the United States. Some communities are so impacted by gangs that people fear for their life and the safety of their children. At its worst gang violence results in the death of innocent bystanders and young ethnic boys who are gang members themselves.

So as gangs continue to reek havoc in their communities, the age old question is what is the solution?
Recently, a method called a Civil Gang Injunction was instituted to inhibit gang violence. A gang injunction is a Civil Court Order issued against an actual gang (as if it were a formal corporation) to cease and desist nuisance activities, that are precursors to gang violence. This article is going to examine Civil Gang Injunctions issued by the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office and address potential concerns presented by Gang Injunctions.

Implementing a Civil Gang Injunction requires a lot of time and effort by both the Los Angeles City Attorney and the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). In the city of Los Angeles, the process of issuing a Gang Injunction is essentially a four-step process. First, officials determine whether a target gang is a “suitable candidate for a gang injunction.” To qualify, a gang must constitute a public nuisance and the nuisance must be continuous and ongoing. Several additional factors are evaluated as well including: whether the gang activities are confined to a particular area, whether the gang had identifiable members and whether there are sufficient records of the gang’s displays of public nuisance.

Second, a problem zone is identified. In creating this “safety zone” convictions, arrests and other gang related incidents are used to map out where a particular gang injunction will be enforced. As such, the injunction only applies in that limited area.

Third, the gang injunction must be approved by the court. Civil Gang Injunctions commonly include the following provisions: Do not associate with any known gang member, no intimidation, no firearms, no drugs, no trespassing and obey curfew. The final step of implementing a Civil Gang Injunction is individual members of the gang are notified about the injunction. If a gang member violates the injunction he/ she may be arrested for violating a court order and face criminal misdemeanor charges.

Gang Injunctions are brilliant in that they seek to inhibit gang violence at the nuisance level before more serious crimes such as murder are committed. The injunction “gives police officers a tool to arrest gang members for conduct that harms the community before it develops into dangerous or violent crime.” And so, although Gang Injunctions do not target the root of why people join gangs they have the potential of preventing the most damaging side effects of gangs.

However, these gang injunctions do not come without a list of potential concerns. First, the “Do Not Associate” provision prohibits gang members from “standing, sitting, walking, gathering or appearing anywhere in public view” with another known gang member. Of course this provision is limited to the safety zone but in effect the provision criminalizes routine behavior. Further, this provision prohibits family members, who are often members of the same gang, from associating with one another as well. Believe it or not, there is a constitutional right to associate. However, the right is limited to association based on “intrinsic or intimate value” and a court ruled the right does not extend to gang members who “join[ ] with others for the purpose of depriving third parties of their lawful rights.”

Another concern about gang injunctions is the notification process. I attended a community training session on Civil Gang Injunctions offered by the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office and one issue that came up was how the gang was put on notice of the injunction. Issuing a hand delivered subpoena to gang members, which informs them of the gang injunction is not always possible. As such, gang members may be put on notice by posting the court order around the safety zone. The court order includes the name of the gang, the names of some of its prominent members and sometimes pictures of the gang members. The problem with this technique is publicly displaying a gang members name and picture has the potential of creating additional gang violence.

To date, law enforcement is pleased with the success of Civil Gang Injunctions. However, it is important to continue to evaluate these injunctions to ensure they are implemented fairly and accurately.

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