The Gang Enhancement of crimes is a racist, subjective tool for prosecutors and law enforcement to charge poor and brown people with more serious crimes, and expose them to the harshest sentences in our State.
Last month I wrapped up a big case in Fresno County. My client was charged with Murder with Special Circumstances. The addition of “special circumstances”, in this case allegedly being in a gang, means the case is a Capital Murder. This means the accused can be sentenced to death, or life without the possibility of parole. My client’s life was truly on the line. With hard work and a wise jury, justice prevailed and my client was fully exonerated, free to go home and enjoy his life with his family. Race, clothing, neighborhood—these are some ways police determine gang membership and for DAs to enhance a crime with special circumstances.
special circumstances. n. in criminal cases, particularly homicides, actions of the accused or the situation under which the crime was committed for which state statutes allow or require imposition of a more severe punishment.
The prosecutor never claimed my client shot anyone, but that my client must be guilty by association, because the shooter was also from the same neighborhood. The gang enhancement allows other people to be lumped into the actual crime even if they had nothing to do with it. Being brown, poor, and from the West Side was enough for the prosecutor to paint my client as a gang member who was part of a murder he did not commit.
The double irony of these charges are that the gang enhancement allowed the murder to become a Capital Crime, and the crime itself allowed anyone to be branded a gang member. One need not be in a gang to be labeled as a gang member for the enhancement of a crime. The prosecutor can claim that if the crime was committed by a gang member, bystanders can be charged with aiding and abetting a gang crime. Further, one need not actually murder anyone to be charged with Homicide, with the gang enhancement just being associated with a gang crime makes all “gang” members complicit. So the District Attorney can cast a wide net over a group or a neighborhood and round up anyone who know the shooter as an accomplice to a gangland murder.
In California, a criminal street gang is defined as group of three or more people that associate for the commission of crimes, and have a common name or identifying sign or symbol. The cops and DA start with what they see to accuse you of being in a gang. Your clothes, neighborhood, tattoos, ethnicity, the grocery you shop at, relatives, church, the route you walk to work, skin color, accent, favorite ball team. Almost ANY group fits the definition of being a gang. A pee-wee soccer team meets the definition of a gang, once the DA accuses them of a pattern of crimes. To Law Enforcement and the Prosecutors, you are guilty of being in a gang because they don’t like the way you look.
These enhancements are used like a blunt weapon, to daze the accused into a plea they would not otherwise accept. Being threatened with a Capital offense and life in jail is daunting, and DAs use that fear to coerce false testimony and false admissions in exchange for dropping the enhancements and shorter sentences.
Subjective and arbitrary laws like gang enhancements to crime open our criminal justice system to abuses by cops and DAs to punish some groups more often and more harshly than others. This hurts the most vulnerable in California: the poor, immigrants, minorities. If we really want to target a gang that is destroying America, start looking at billionaires wearing fancy suits, Ivy League rings, silk ties, and Italian shoes who work in Finance and Banking.
As a Californian of Japanese descent, whose family was interred during World War 2, I am particularly sensitive to giving Government such arbitrary powers. My family were labeled as threats to America because of their skin and last name. Gang definitions and enhancements are just as dangerous to our country as racial profiling, Jim Crow laws, and other forms of institutionalized discrimination.
Winning the case last month was hard work, but Justice prevailed for my client. I proved at trial that he was not affiliated with a gang, and more importantly, was not involved in a murder. He avoided life in prison, and has resumed his normal life with work and family. Prosecutors are accustomed to clients like this rolling over and going to prison. My client’s rights, and the rights of all who could be lumped into a gang and falsely accused of a crime, were defended against sketchy law and shady enforcement.