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City Will Seek Injunction Against Gang Attire, Activities : Law: Officials hope civil restrictions will make area safer, but some legal groups say action could violate constitutional rights.

January 02, 1994|JOHN POPE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NORWALK — Gang members in Norwalk could be prosecuted if they wear gang clothes, carry a marking pen or hang out in an alley, under a program recently approved by the City Council.

It will cost the city $48,000 to seek an injunction against gang practices, such as tagging. Deputy Dist. Atty. Deanne Ancker will seek the civil remedy in an effort to ward off such behavior.

Norwalk, a city of 94,000, has about 2,500 gang members in five active gangs and two tagging crews in the city, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department said. About 500 of them are hard-core gang members, said Sgt. Dick Madden.

Although drive-by shootings are uncommon in Norwalk, authorities have received complaints for years from residents about intimidation by gang members. Widespread graffiti and theft are also attributed to gangs, officials said.

Ancker, who prosecuted gang-related slayings for a year in East Los Angeles, is investigating several trouble spots in Norwalk, including a residential alley where gang members congregate, and the parking lot of a new hamburger restaurant. The lot has been the site of some turf wars, she said, and patrons have complained of slashed car tires and broken windows.

After reviewing police reports and interviewing residents about the activity in the area, Ancker plans to seek a public nuisance injunction in Norwalk Superior Court against the offending gang. If a judge grants the injunction, all members of the gang would be legally prohibited from congregating in the alley or parking lot during certain hours. The injunction would list known gang members by name.

Such a court order may forbid gang members from having otherwise legal objects that could be used as weapons, such as baseball bats, tire irons, screwdrivers, crowbars or bottles. Some may be prohibited from possessing tools commonly used to break into cars, such as pliers, wire cutters and lock picks. Gang members suspected of dealing illegal drugs could be under order not to carry pagers, cellular phones, binoculars, flashlights or walkie-talkies.

Ancker said she may target some specific gang-related clothing, such as the type bearing letters or symbols that identify a particular gang.

Gang members who violate the injunction, such as taggers who carry a marking pen, could be jailed. Parents of taggers could be fined for damages caused by their children, Ancker said.

But the main aim of the program, said Ancker, is to discourage lawbreakers.

"Our goal is not to put people in jail. We don't want to see teen-agers behind bars," Ancker said. "It's to prevent destructive behavior."

One gang member said recently, however, that the use of such orders will not change his set's behavior.

"We'll do it anyway," he said.

City officials hope otherwise.

"This is to combat what we perceive to be a serious gang problem in our city," said Ernie Garcia, deputy city manager. "I'm not saying we have a tremendous problem, but it's one we've identified and taken steps to control. Now it's time to target those who won't go along with the program."

According to Sheriff's Department figures, 1,542 crimes were committed by gang members in Norwalk during 1992. From January through October of 1993, the figure was 670.

Civil libertarians fear the plan would infringe on 1st Amendment rights, such as free speech and free assembly.

Mark Silverstein, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, successfully challenged a similar plan in Westminster. In that case, he said, the injunctions were found to be unconstitutional.

He said the Westminster program restricted individual freedoms based only on the accusation of being involved with a gang.

"The action was an attempt to impose guilt by association," he said. "It was punishment for who you associated with, rather than what you actually did."

That injunction would have prevented any two of 60 suspected gang members, including members of the same family inside their home, from meeting in any quarter-mile area, Silverstein said. In denying the injunctions, an Orange County judge cited the constitutional right of free assembly.

The ACLU plans to keep an eye on the Norwalk program, Silverstein said. "We have concerns about the constitutionality of these injunctions."

But Ancker isn't worried.

"The courts have upheld them when the injunction is narrowly tailored and carefully worded," she said. "We're talking about a one-block alleyway . . . where gangs have directly intimidated people."

Courts have allowed injunctions against gangs in Burbank and Van Nuys, Ancker said.

"It does prevent the gang members from associating," she said. "It becomes too much hassle for them. They don't want to go to jail."

Ancker's contract ends in June, but it probably will be extended until December, when city officials plan to evaluate the effectiveness of any court orders obtained against the gangs, Garcia said.

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