Santa Ana police will soon begin serving legal notices to street gang members that further participation in their criminal gangs could lead to a three-year prison sentence under a new state anti-terrorism law.
Santa Ana will become the first city in Orange County to use the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act, which gives local law enforcement agencies and prosecutors broader powers in fighting street gangs that have a history of criminal activity.
"We need something, you bet," said Santa Ana Police Lt. Dave Salazar, who oversees the department's gang investigators. "There are some good teeth in this thing."
The City Council will consider a resolution supporting the new law July 3, and police could start enforcing it soon thereafter, Santa Ana Mayor Daniel H. Young said.
The law does not make mere membership in a gang illegal. But it allows a judge to sentence a gang member "who willfully promotes, furthers or assists in any felonious criminal conduct by members of that gang," to up to three years in prison. Another provision of the law enhances penalties for gang members who are convicted of gang-related crimes.
Salazar said that in the past police had the difficult task of obtaining evidence of a conspiracy before being able to arrest gang members who played peripheral roles in various crimes.
"Are they going to talk to you at all? Probably not," he said. "This bridges the gap. If we can show they're gang members . . . and they were in the car when the drive-by shooting took place, we can charge them with something."
But the new law, which has not yet been tested in court, is still subject to confusing, and sometimes contradictory, interpretations. Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. John D. Conley, who is working with Santa Ana to implement the new law, said the simple presence of a gang member during the commission of a drive-by shooting or other crime might not be enough to prosecute.
"You'd still have to prove 'promote, further or assist,' " Conley said. "It depends on the background of the case."
Still, Conley said, the district attorney's office believes that the law is worth a shot.
"Police like the psychological aspect of it," Conley said. "They can hand gang members this (notice), and say, 'Here, this is what's going to happen to you.' "
Santa Ana police and the district attorney are still working out the language of the notices and deciding which gangs should be targeted, Conley said.
Gang violence has plagued Santa Ana for years. Police have identified more than 50 gangs, comprising between 5,000 and 6,000 members, but only about a dozen gangs are active at any one time, Lt. Salazar said.
"A lot of it depends on which leaders are in or out of jail," he said.
There have been four gang-related homicides so far this year, compared to six during all of 1988, Santa Ana Police Department spokesman Cpl. Cliff Seward said. Arrests of gang members are running ahead of last year--111 so far this year compared to a total of 210 in 1988--and gang-related assaults with deadly weapons and drive-by shootings are about the same as last year, Seward said.
Even if gang-related crime is not increasing dramatically, it is still a serious problem in Santa Ana, Salazar said.
"What we're more concerned with are the neighborhood complaints, the graffiti, the presence of gangs . . . terrifying the neighborhood," Salazar said.
Police across Los Angeles County--including the cities of Los Angeles, Long Beach, Compton and Pasadena--have already begun the time-consuming task of identifying and serving notices to thousands of members of 11 criminal street gangs.
The notification program has already had results in Compton, where members of the Santana Block Crips gang have disappeared from the streets since police began pursuing them with notices, said Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Genelin, head of the district attorney's hard-core gang section.
"If we can stop them from wearing their colors, from openly terrorizing neighborhoods . . . , that is a real victory," Genelin said.
The notices in Los Angeles County advise gang members that their gang has committed two or more crimes identified in the law--assault with a deadly weapon, robbery, homicide or manslaughter, narcotics sales, drive-by shootings, arson and witness intimidation--and that active participation in the gang could lead to felony prosecution.
"The idea of the notice is to serve the gang member with notice of what the gang has done, so he can't come in and say, 'Hey, I didn't know,' " Conley said.
Gang members are asked to sign a copy of the notice in Los Angeles County, but service of the notice is not necessarily required for other provisions of the law to be used against a particular gang member.
One provision of the law, which allows a judge to tack on extra prison time in gang-related offenses, has already been used to enhance the sentences of about 15 convicted gang members, Genelin said.
Another section of the law was used to charge a South Los Angeles mother with allowing her 15-year-old son, who had been arrested in connection with a gang rape, to participate in a street gang.
Charges against the woman were dismissed last week after it was learned that she had recently completed a parenting skills class.
The street terrorism act is the latest of several attempts in recent years by law enforcement agencies to thwart gangs' burgeoning strength. Two years ago, the Los Angeles city attorney's office tried to break up the Playboy Gangster Crips gang by filing a civil lawsuit asking that members be banned from associating with one another. A judge refused to grant the request, however, calling it too broad.
Santa Ana Mayor Young said he hopes that will not be the case with the new anti-gang law.
"I think it was carefully put together to protect constitutional rights," he said. "This could be a great tool."