Anti-Gang Proviso in D.C. Crime Bill Draws Support but Also Raises Concerns

By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The D.C. Council is set to vote today on a broad crime bill that includes a new legal mechanism for combating gangs, one that proponents say has been effective in other cities but that critics warn could infringe on people's liberties.

The provision -- drafted by the administration of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) -- would allow authorities to target alleged gang members in civil proceedings. A prosecutor could obtain an injunction barring an alleged gang member from engaging in a range of activities, including such nuisance offenses as harassing passersby on the street.

Violating the order could lead to a criminal charge of contempt of court and, upon conviction, a jail term of up to six months.

Supporters contend that civil injunctions have helped reduce gang activity in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas and elsewhere. They say D.C. police and prosecutors need the tool to fight an estimated 87 criminal gangs in the District.

But opponents argue that the measure could result in innocent people being wrongly labeled gang members and having their freedom threatened. "Gang injunctions are a triumph of tough rhetoric over real, evidence-based solutions," Carl Takei, a staff lawyer with the Washington area chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said at a news conference yesterday.

Joining other opponents at a gathering on Freedom Plaza, in front of the city's John A. Wilson Building, Takei warned that someone who is merely an acquaintance or relative of an alleged gang member could wind up being labeled a gang member by virtue of that association. He said the person's daily activities could then be limited by a court injunction.

Asked about the concerns expressed by Takei and several other opponents of the provision, D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles called them "a lot of baloney."

"When I started looking at this about a year ago," Nickles said, "it was part of a general effort to look at the best practices in other places. And we looked at San Francisco and Dallas." He said those cities "haven't had the kinds of problems" predicted by opponents in the District. "And their actions have been upheld by the highest courts in California and Texas."

If the provision became law, the first step in the gang-injunction process would be for authorities to prove to a judge "by clear and convincing evidence" that a targeted group constitutes a gang -- meaning the group engages in organized, continuing criminal activity within a specific geographic area.

A judge could then issue a civil injunction against members of the gang, barring a wide range of conduct, from serious offenses such as drug or weapons possession to nuisance activities such as violating curfews, annoying or intimidating people and defacing property. For any activity to be considered a violation of the injunction, Nickles said, it would have to occur within the geographic area -- a specific neighborhood, for instance -- defined in the court order.

Proving a violation of the injunction would be a simpler and easier process than proving the specific underlying offenses, Nickles said, meaning it would be easier for authorities to gain jail sentences for alleged gang members.

Opponents warned yesterday that the injunctions could wind up applying not just to gang members, but to people acquainted with gang members.

"What it does is hurt innocent people," said Ian Cooper of the ACLU. "Gang injunctions have been used extensively in California. And one thing we have learned is that they have unintended consequences that stretch far beyond trying to constrain the activities of gang members. What happens is, people who are very, very loosely, tangentially, connected to someone in a gang . . . they get put on the gang injunction lists.

"Even gang workers, people who work to get people out of gangs, get put on this gang injunction list, and are no longer able to do their jobs," Cooper said. "This not theory. This is not hypothesis. This has happened."

Nickles scoffed at that assertion, saying officials have a hard enough time dealing with the hundreds of full-fledged gang members in the city without wasting time and money pursuing non-gang members.

"We have limited resources," he said. "We would not seek legislation of that type, nor would we seek to enforce legislation of that type if the council passed it."

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