|Photo by Robert Yager|
Alleged gang members, with legal support from the Nation of Islam, have mounted the most vigorous courtroom defense to date of their civil liberties by opposing a Los Angeles city injunction that would prohibit, among other things, associating in public, going out after 10 p.m., and signaling a moving car. And though the city won this round, obtaining a preliminary injunction against alleged members of the Venice Shoreline Crips, the case is expected to go to trial, the first local challenge of the popular but hotly debated law-enforcement strategy.
Fridays ruling, by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge David D. Perez, establishes a "safety zone" comprising most of Venices Oakwood neighborhood, within which 36 teens and adults will be barred from contacting each other in public and from a variety of otherwise legal activities. Defendants face a possible six-month jail term for each violation. Barring a successful legal challenge, the preliminary injunction will remain in effect until a formal trial, after which the injunction will be either dissolved or made permanent.
Although the result of Fridays hearing, in a packed Santa Monica courtroom, was no different from those of similar hearings across Los Angeles, the proceedings themselves were unlike any other. "Typically, gang members choose not to oppose" the injunctions, said Deputy City Attorney Brooke White last month after another preliminary injunction was slapped against the Culver City Boys, the Mar Vistabased rivals of the Shoreline Crips. At that hearing, which lasted less than an hour, not a single defendant was represented by a lawyer. White faced a very different situation Friday, when four attorneys representing 27 defendants argued for more than five hours that the court order was unfair and unnecessary.
Defense attorneys spent much of the hearing attacking the evidence supporting the citys case, which consisted of the sworn declarations of 75 police officers and four civilians. The latters statements were sealed and unavailable to either the defendants or their lawyers. Much of the testimony involved alleged incidents that had never been prosecuted. In one notable example, which provoked laughter from the audience, attorney Naren Hunter decried the relevance of testimony regarding a photo of his client reaching into his pants. He noted that the city, through "an incredible leap of logic," wanted the court to interpret this gesture as cocaine "keistering," a term referring to the practice of hiding drugs in the rectum, even though no drugs were recovered and no charges filed. They further denounced the citys near-total reliance on the testimony of police officers who do not live in the neighborhood they patrol. "The police are not the community," said attorney Trane Hunter.
On a constitutional level, lawyers for the defense argued that "the terms of this injunction are so broad and vague that almost any activity can put them in jail." Their concerns were shared by the five defendants who testified in court. "As soon as you grant this," Schauntee Snodgrass told the judge, "Im going to jail. I already know that." Attorneys argued that the clause prohibiting defendants from approaching a moving vehicle, designed to prevent drug sales, could result in a teenager being arrested for waving to his grandmother.
Countered city attorney White: "If you want to wave to your grandmother, fine. Just dont do it when shes in a moving vehicle."
Defense lawyers termed his rejoinder "ludicrous." "That throws the Constitution on its head," said Naren Hunter.
The Shoreline Crips first made local headlines in 1993, when a war began with rival Latino gangs that left over 20 dead. After tensions heated up again two years ago, City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter asked the city and district attorneys to bring gang injunctions to Venice. So far, the injunctions have held up in court an attempt by ACLU lawyers to strike down a San Jose injunction failed before the California Supreme Court in 1997. Since then, Los Angeles has increasingly been using the court orders to deal with gang-troubled neighborhoods.
Arguing for the injunction, White asserted that the people of Venice "have lost their neighborhood to the Venice Shoreline Crips," and that "everyone knows that Oakwood is the rock-cocaine capital of the world." His assertions were met with widespread guffaws and hisses from an audience composed mostly of supporters of the defendants. To rebut those claims, defense attorneys called on eight residents who testified that community members do not live in fear of gang violence, but suffer near-daily harassment at the hands of the LAPD. "There is fear in Oakwood," summarized attorney James Simmons. "There is fear in Oakwood of the police."
One community activist testified that the injunction was not about crime prevention but about an attempted gentrification of Oakwood, which is surrounded by whiter and more-affluent neighborhoods. "We believe this injunction is not dealing with the gang. We believe its dealing with property values," said Stan Muhammad, one of the founders of a recently created group called Venice 2000 which, with help from the Nation of Islam, has been funding the defendants legal defense. Venice 2000 also has been setting up job-training programs for Shorelines who renounce their gang ties.
The defense noted that crime in Oakwood has dropped precipitously since the last round of gang warfare, without the help of an injunction.
White responded, "Its too late when the bodies fall. Now is the time . . . not when the blood is being scrubbed off the streets."
Only one person testified in court for the injunction. Mike Bonin, community-affairs director for Councilwoman Galanter, told the court that the majority of Oakwood residents "live in fear" and favor the order, but were "terrified to come forward." In an interview after the hearing, defense attorney LaChelle Woodert countered that Galanter has long failed to represent the people of Oakwood: "Ruth Galanters rich cronies may want this injunction, but this community does not."
But the city won the day. With little comment, Judge Perez approved the preliminary injunction, though not before striking the names of two defendants whose statements in court convinced him that they were not gang members.
Defense attorney James Simmons was left in the awkward position of asking permission for his clients to gather at his office, which is within the affected area. The judge granted that request, but his response was barely audible over the exclamations of audience members as they stormed out of the courtroom.
"He had his mind made up when he came in here," one woman said.
An angry defense attorney exclaimed that the ruling "stabbed the black residents of Oakwood in the back."
The battle, though, is far from over. The city will almost certainly have to go to trial to win a permanent injunction. A court date wont be set until at least January, and until then, attorney Woodert vowed, "Were going to use every procedural means at our disposal" to fight the order. "Were going to take extraordinary measures."