Prosecutors launching a campaign against racism dusted off an obscure--some say unconstitutional--law this week to charge a man accused of leading a neo-Nazi youth gang that threatened several San Fernando Valley residents.
Michael Casey Martin, 18, of Chatsworth, was charged Monday with three counts of violating the Criminal Syndicalism Act, which prohibits the use or advocacy of unlawful, violent acts to bring about political change. He has pleaded not guilty to those charges and to a charge of attempted residential burglary.
In Martin's case, prosecutors say, the political change sought was the "expulsion and subjection of Mexican and black people" and the establishment of white supremacy.
The Criminal Syndicalism Act was enacted in 1919 and used primarily against labor agitators and Communist sympathizers in the 1920s and 1930s. The law was not used from 1937 to 1966, when Los Angeles County tried unsuccessfully to prosecute a man who distributed leaflets advocating revolution.
The complaint against Martin, suspected leader of the Reich Skins youth gang, says that on Oct. 7 he and a juvenile companion tried to break into a Granada Hills home occupied by a Latino high school student, the student's 14-year-old sister and his mother.
Carried Gun, Complaint Says
The complaint says that Martin carried a gun and yelled "white power," "down with Mexicans" and "down with blacks" during the attempted break-in.
Prosecutors decided to invoke the Criminal Syndicalism Act after police presented them with evidence against Martin, including printed material connecting him to neo-Nazi, Ku Klux Klan and White Aryan Resistance activities, said Myron L. Jenkins, Los Angeles County deputy district attorney.
"Advocating white power and downgrading the status of Latinos and blacks through unlawful acts fits the criteria of the statute," Jenkins said.
Billy Desmond Webb, head deputy district attorney in charge of the North Valley division, said prosecutors want to test the law to determine if it can be used to fight racism in the San Fernando Valley.
In recent months, several valley synagogues have been desecrated with anti-Semitic graffiti. Police have been investigating recent crimes believed committed by a group known as the Skinheads, whose members are usually recognizable by their shaved or nearly shaved heads, said Lt. Warren Knowles of the Los Angeles Police Department's Devonshire Division. The Reich Skins is a faction of the Skinheads, Knowles said.
"We can't allow this type of racist activity to continue," Webb said. "To not implement the statute because someone is afraid we wouldn't be successful is like committing suicide because you're afraid of dying. I think this is a proper case to test the constitutionality of the law."
But other legal scholars object. "This act is a relic and deserves to remain in the closet," said Gerald F. Uelmen, dean of Santa Clara University's School of Law. "When we start prosecuting by label--when we say the issue is belonging to this group or that group--we're treading on very dangerous territory.
"The potential for misuse is grave," Uelmen said. "It could easily be used to suppress unpopular political movements, as it has in the past."
5 Found Guilty in 1937
Among those convicted under the law were five men found guilty in 1937 for agitating agricultural laborers in Sacramento. They were sentenced to three to five years in prison.
In 1933, the statute was incorporated into California's school code. Teachers who included material on communism in their curriculum could be dismissed on charges of criminal syndicalism.
Martin is charged with violating sections of the law that prohibit bringing about violent political change by spoken or written words or personal conduct, personal acts and organizing a group. If convicted, he could receive a sentence of eight months, Jenkins said. If convicted on the attempted burglary charge, he could get five years.
Another section of the act, barring publication of printed material advocating violent political change, was found unconstitutional in 1971. The state Court of Appeal ruled that the law violated First Amendment guarantees of free speech.
The 1971 case stemmed from the Los Angeles County district attorney's prosecution of John Wesley Harris Jr. for distributing Progressive Labor Party literature outside the 1966 inquest into the death of Leonard Deadwyler, a black man shot by a white police officer. Leaflets distributed by Harris included one titled "The Need for Revolution."
Robert H. Philibosian, a former Los Angeles County district attorney, said the statute is rarely invoked because it is often difficult to prove that a group could bring about political change through its activities.
It would be appropriate to prosecute an organization that terrorizes a rural community to the point where voters are forced to elect a different city council, Philibosian said.
The California law "continues to have value and should be used to prosecute anyone who clearly violates it," Philibosian said. "And I can understand a prosecutor wanting to hit a defendant with everything he's got because the person is bad.
"But the requirement to prove that a defendant sought to effect political change is difficult. The mere use of a racial slur, despicable as it is, may not be sufficient to meet the burden of proof."