Earlier this month, a federal judge put the brakes on Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas' reckless attempt to enforce an anti-gang injunction against dozens of men and women who never had the opportunity to challenge his designation of them as gang members.
Injunctions are a unique kind of restraining order that bar gang members from engaging in certain activities, such as congregating, wearing particular clothes or going out after 10 p.m. Their goal is to reduce a gang's ability to control the streets by putting limits on its members' behavior — generally activities that would be legal if done by anyone else. In some cases, injunctions can be a highly effective tool in loosening a gang's grip on a neighborhood. But because they impose harsh limits on an individual's freedom, such restrictions must be subject to court review.
Unfortunately, Orange County prosecutors attempted to bypass judicial oversight when in 2009 they sought an injunction against the Orange Varrio Cypress street gang. Prosecutors accused 115 people of belonging to the group. More than 30 of those defendants went to court to challenge their designation. But before the judge could hear evidence or reach a decision, prosecutors dismissed the case. That should have been the end of it, but two days later prosecutors went back to court and obtained an injunction against the gang as a whole — and eventually added the names of the same people who just days earlier had heard their cases dismissed.
Somewhere in the process, the supposed gang members lost the opportunity to challenge their designation in court. They could petition to be removed from the list after the fact, but it is notoriously difficult to have one's name removed after it is put on.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California sued on behalf of the alleged gang members and won. U.S. District Court Judge Valerie Baker Fairbank put it bluntly: "In sum, their constitutional rights were violated."
At the very least, Rackauckas' office failed to follow the law. If prosecutors believe suspected members of a gang pose a danger to the community, they have an obligation to present evidence of that to the court before limiting people's lawful activities. Instead, prosecutors made a unilateral determination of guilt.
Gang violence is a serious problem. Indeed, in Los Angeles, which was among the first to use injunctions on a wide scale against gangs, about 26,000 people belong to more than 250 gangs, according to police. Prosecutors in L.A. often obtain restraining orders against gangs, but then serve notice on individuals so that the accused can contest the accusations.
Fairbank's ruling should put Rackauckas' office on notice that while injunctions can be useful in fighting gang activity, individuals must not be denied due process under the law.