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Judge Favors a Way Out for Gang Members

Provision would allow a person served under an Oxnard injunction to 'opt out' if he can prove he's not a member of city's Colonia Chiques.

August 15, 2004|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Although he banned an Oxnard gang from gathering in public two months ago, Superior Court Judge Frederick H. Bysshe still appears troubled over when the court should stop considering someone a gang member and allow him to reclaim his freedoms.

In a June 1 court-ordered action, members of the Colonia Chiques gang face arrest if they are seen gathering, wearing their "colors" or staying out after 10 p.m. within a 6.6-square-mile enforcement zone in central Oxnard.

Bysshe is mulling whether to make the temporary order permanent. But in court comments he has suggested he will do so only if changes are made to the initial order. Chief among them, the judge made clear at a hearing last week, will be a provision that allows those served with injunction papers to be released if they can prove they no longer belong to the Chiques.

"The court is mindful that there needs to be a clearly marked doorway to exit the gang," Bysshe told prosecutors and attorneys for several Oxnard residents who have been served with injunction papers by police.

Prosecutors have already agreed to a so-called "opt-out" provision. Deputy Dist. Atty. Karen Wold said it was not the intention of law enforcement to "impose a curfew for life."

"As people get older and have new responsibilities, they do move away from the gang life," Wold said. "This would provide a method for those who want to get out of the gang to do so."

But those seeking release would have to meet a number of criteria, she said. They include holding a job for at least a year, avoiding arrest for three years, staying away from known gang members and not getting any new gang-related tattoos, Wold said.

So far, 44 suspected gang members have been served with papers. But Oxnard Police Chief Art Lopez said that was a fraction of the estimated 1,000 people, mostly adult Latino males, who make up what he said was Ventura County's most violent street gang.

About 90% of the gang's members are older than 18, with an average age of 22, he said. Although civil gang injunctions in other counties have not included an opt-out provision, Lopez said he favored one.

"I'm in support of it, absolutely," he said. "If we can intervene and get them out of gangs, that's a lot more cost-effective than throwing them in jail."

But Lopez expressed doubt that any of those now affected by the gang injunction would qualify for release. They are among the most hard-core members of the Chiques, Lopez said.

"One of them told a newspaper he was getting out of the gang and two weeks later he was arrested for a robbery," the police chief said. "They say one thing and do another. That's what you're dealing with."

While defense attorneys support an opt-out provision, some are already challenging the district attorney's proposed criteria as too stringent. If people want to move on with their lives, they shouldn't have to jump through so many hoops, attorney Gabriella Navarro-Busch said.

"This injunction is like life-time probation," Navarro-Busch said. "They should not have to adhere to these strict guidelines, and wait so long proving themselves, until the D.A. says they're not active."

Two of her clients, Javier Ambriz and Miguel Guillen, have petitioned the court to invalidate gang injunction papers served on them. Ambriz and Guillen in court papers maintain they are not part of the gang and were unreasonably served, a different argument from the opt-out provision.

Still, Navarro-Busch said, their request delineates the difficulty of defining who is and who is not a gang member.

"Opting out is something that anybody who has been served should have the opportunity to do," she said.

Bysshe, who is overseeing all legal matters related to the injunction, has voiced other concerns about restrictions written into the June 1 preliminary order.

At last week's hearing, the judge asked prosecutors whether they would object to letting gang members remain outside after 10 p.m. as long as they are on their own property. Wold said she probably would not object, as long as they were not associating with other gang members.

When Bysshe voiced an additional reservation about the association ban, however, Wold said she put her foot down.

"If you don't enforce that part of the injunction, it will be a useless law enforcement tool," she said.

Wold said Bysshe has asked for provisions that judges in other counties have not requested, including a detailed legal definition of "gang member." The judge has also told police he would like them to regularly meet with community members to explain who is affected by the injunction and why is it needed.

"He's very, very sensitive and concerned about everyone's feelings and everyone's rights," Wold said. "He is considering everything, and I feel that there will be a very solid injunction at the end."

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