(FinalCall.com) – Law enforcement should have to do more than point their fingers to strip people of their rights, activists say.
Civil liberties advocates have insisted for years that gang injunctions are wrong and, in at least one aspect, it appears that a federal judge in Southern California agrees.
U.S. District Judge Valerie Baker Fairbank ruled May 10 that the Orange County district attorney must grant a court hearing to persons deemed gang members before restricting their civil liberties under a gang injunction.
Judge Fairbank’s decision wraps up a class action lawsuit filed by the ACLU and Munger, Tolles & Olson against Orange County D.A. Tony Rackauckas and the city’s police department in September 2009. The suit charged dozens of residents were illegally placed under a gang injunction after they were deliberately prevented from arguing in court that they didn’t belong to a gang.
The DA’s office and Orange County Police Department “failed to provide adequate due process,” the judge wrote in her ruling.
“This ruling re-affirms one of the bedrock principles of our system and our society–that before an individual’s liberty is taken or restricted, the individual has a right to a hearing before a neutral decisionmaker,” said Joseph Ybarra, a Munger Tolles litigation partner.
The DA originally sought the injunction against the Orange Varrio Cypress street gang in February 2009. The injunction restricts members from going outside in the evening, walking into a restaurant or on a bus or attending a political meeting or religious service within an approximate four square mile area. Every act violated carries a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail.
After approximately 60 people contested, prosecutors dismissed them from the injunction, according to John Anderson, Orange County assistant district attorney. The ACLU charged the DA with playing a game of bait and switch because it still served a permanent injunction on those dismissed from the gang injunction.
“No public servant should be allowed to subvert the judicial process and deprive residents of their right to be heard in court or develop a full and fair record,” stated Belinda Escobosa Helzer, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California’s Orange County office.
The original injunction is in place because no one appeared in court to contest the injunction against the gang and the ruling only applies to the 60 or so that were dismissed, assistant district attorney Anderson told The Final Call.
Assistant district attorney Anderson said the case should have been argued in state court.
The judge’s order “rewrites more than 100 years of injunction law and that’s our problem with it. It gives criminal street gang members more rights than labor union members, than opponents to the wars that we’re in and to abortion protesters. Criminal street gang members stand in a unique class of groups that have constitutional protections not afforded to others,” charged the assistant district attorney.
One solution to gang problems is to invest in after school programs that end later than five p.m., transform abandoned buildings into youth centers, youth empowerment and cultural centers, and to fund educators, said Manuel La Fontaine, an organizer with All of Us or None. The national advocacy organization for prisoners with children has been helping Oakland residents fight gang injunctions since February 2010.
The federal ruling is a step in the right direction, even though the Oakland City Council voted 4 to 3 on May 17 to continue gang injunctions in North Oakland and Fruitvale, Mr. La Fontaine told The Final Call.
More than 200 gang injunction opponents–mostly youth–completed comment cards mostly urging their officials to defund and deauthorize the injunctions. They only increase police profiling of youth and injunctions don’t work, activists insisted.
“Black and Brown young men face Jim Crow laws regularly. That’s been the ‘American Way.’ Gang injunctions are justifiable racial profiling and a waste of money. Oakland is on the verge of bankruptcy and cannot afford political waste,” said Student Minister Keith Muhammad of Muhammad Mosque 26B in Oakland.
Council member Ignacio De La Fuente said he supports the gang injunctions because he’s witnessed the impact of crime on seniors, families and children. “You might disagree with us but that’s what democracy is all about,” he said.
Council member Desley Brooks voted against the gang injunctions, saying law enforcement’s own reports show they haven’t reduced crime. She told her colleagues city resources could have been used in another way.
“It looks like your position is compromised when you continue to take only one side and can never see the other. This is a whole city that’s got to work and we need to figure out ways to collectively come together to do that,” she said.