Attorney General Rob McKenna seeks tough anti-gang law
JORDAN SCHRADER; Staff writer
Washington’s attorney general wants to have legal power to crack down on gangs that prosecutors in California already possess.
Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist wants it too.
In 2004, a gang called the Bulldogs menaced a neighborhood in Fresno, Calif. Graffiti covered buildings. Thugs loitering outside a convenience store demanded payment to allow shoppers inside. Visitors leaving the Chaffee Zoo would find their cars broken into.
That’s how Greg Anderson, chief deputy district attorney of Fresno County, describes what was happening. Then, Anderson says: “It just disappeared. It just stopped.”
Gang activity didn’t go away completely. But in early 2005, major crimes as measured by FBI statistics dropped 35 percent from a year earlier in that part of town, Anderson said.
He gives the credit to the civil injunction his office obtained against the Bulldogs – a legal order that prohibited gang members from doing any of a long list of activities in the neighborhood.
Now, Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna has asked the Legislature to create a kind of restraining order for gang members that is similar to the orders domestic violence victims file against their abusers.
If he succeeds, authorities could obtain an order from a judge that would limit a gang member’s otherwise legal behavior in so-called “protection zones,” neighborhoods or cities where the gang operates.
Within those zones, a judge could impose a yearlong ban on going certain places, talking to fellow gang members, contacting teenagers going to school, wearing gang clothing in public or staying out past a specific curfew.
Violators of the orders could spend up to a year in prison and pay fines up to $5,000.
It’s the most sweeping piece of a broader anti-gang law proposed by Republican McKenna, which also would beef up sentences for gang members; allow for rental properties plagued by gang activity to be boarded up in the same way drug houses can be today; and, at a time when the state budget is tight, devote $10 million to gang-prevention efforts.
The idea of using civil orders to crack down on gangs failed in 2008 after the Senate stripped it from another McKenna-backed gang bill. Likewise, there’s no guarantee it will become law in 2011.
Some civil libertarians see it as a violation of due-process rights. Concerns about racial profiling may flare up, after gang sweeps that have targeted heavily black and Hispanic gangs.
Then there is the fact that McKenna is a likely Republican candidate for governor in 2012 and some Democrats may want to deny him a victory.
But the idea of restraining orders has bipartisan support among law enforcement and lawmakers, including a couple of key committee chairs: Rep. Christopher Hurst of Enumclaw, a conservative Democrat, and Sen. Adam Kline of Seattle, a liberal Democrat.
PIERCE COUNTY IMPACTS
Pierce County could see quick use of the restraining orders if they win approval. County Prosecutor Lindquist, another Democrat, already has been cracking down.
His gang unit has charged roughly 100 people under the 2008 law that allows for extended sentences for gang members. Lindquist made headlines by charging 32 suspected members of Tacoma’s Hilltop Crips with criminal conspiracy.
“We’re going to create a tool that you’re going to see Mark Lindquist use,” Hurst said of McKenna’s proposed legislation. “It’s custom tailored to a dynamic prosecutor, and he’s going to go to town on this and make a difference.”
As a net to catch gang members, obtaining and enforcing protection orders would be easier than proving that joining a gang is a criminal conspiracy, which proved difficult for Lindquist in prosecuting the Hilltop Crips. A judge scaled back his office’s approach to focus on specific crimes.
The protection orders would have been useful in targeting the Hilltop Crips, Lindquist said – even though the gang didn’t primarily operate in the Hilltop but throughout the city.
“We will absolutely use it, and it will be very effective in reducing gang violence in targeted neighborhoods,” Lindquist said. “It’s worked in other jurisdictions, and I’m confident we can make it work here.”
The tactic is untried in Washington and most states but used by law enforcement agencies all over California. Some communities in Texas, Minnesota, Florida and Utah have used it too.
In California, it takes the form of a civil injunction filed against a gang. Cities and counties came up with the tactic, which was upheld by the state courts and only later written into state law.
Fresno County has obtained six injunctions against gangs, about one a year since it helped pioneer the practice, Anderson said.
Anderson has advised Lindquist and McKenna’s office and says they have the right idea with their proposed legislation, which he said does more than California’s to limit the restrictions judges can order. For example, the bill doesn’t allow a ban on communication with family members.
Further limitations could emerge during the lawmaking process. Kline said the Legislature is likely to require that targets of the orders have been convicted of a gang-related crime in the past.
The American Civil Liberties Union has opposed the injunctions in California. The group’s Washington chapter says the restraining orders as proposed by McKenna would violate due process by not giving court-appointed attorneys to the people targeted by the orders.
McKenna’s office sees the system as similar to a domestic violence case, in which the subjects of the orders, if poor, do not receive an attorney at the civil-court hearings where orders are issued. But once charged with a misdemeanor crime for violating the order, a low-income suspect would be provided with an attorney, said Todd Bowers, the attorney general’s senior counsel.
WILL IT WORK?
ACLU state lobbyist Shankar Narayan said there are other, proven tactics: spending money trying to divert young people away from gangs, while pursuing gang members for violent acts they commit.
“There isn’t any evidence we’ve seen that injunctions actually work,” Narayan said. “We know what works. Let’s do that.”
Studies of the injunctions elsewhere have found that they sometimes made residents of a troubled neighborhood feel safer, said John Moore, director of the federally funded National Gang Center. Polls conducted by the Fresno County authorities bear that out.
But Moore said there has been little research on such tactics’ impact on crime statistics.
“If you ask the researchers, they’ll say that’s only a short-term effect that’s good for getting neighbors to feel safer in their environment,” Moore said. “But it doesn’t do a great deal to stop gang crime and to pull kids out of gangs, to prevent kids from joining gangs.”
Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826