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Going after gangs, badly

Orange County's district attorney is misusing injunctions.

May 04, 2012
  • Orange County Dist. Atty Tony Rackauckas wants to bypass judicial review in imposing gang injunctions.
Orange County Dist. Atty Tony Rackauckas wants to bypass judicial review… (Los Angeles Times )

Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas has spent three years defending an indefensible tactic that denies individuals the right to due process before they are named in a gang injunction. A federal judge has ruled it unconstitutional, but Rackauckas has now appealed that decision. He should abandon this costly and misguided legal battle that is little more than an attempt to bend the rules.

Injunctions are powerful tools that can help law enforcement combat gangs. The theory is that by placing restrictions on the conduct of gang members — such as imposing curfews on them or limiting where they can congregate — the injunction will undercut a gang's ability to control the streets and commit crimes. But because the restrictions impose strict limits on activities that would otherwise be legal, these injunctions are subject to court review.

Most prosecutors understand that such severe restrictions ought to be used judiciously. But Rackauckas insists that he should be allowed to play by different rules. In 2009, his office sought an injunction against 115 alleged gang members. Dozens of individuals accused of belonging to the Orange Varrio Cypress gang went to court to contest that designation, which was often based on guilt by association — being seen talking to a gang member, for instance. However, they never got the chance to present evidence because Rackauckas' office abruptly dismissed the case. His office then obtained an injunction against the gang as a whole — and proceeded to serve the same people who days earlier had the case against them dropped. In so doing, his office essentially prevented them from keeping their names off the injunction. Theoretically, they could seek to have their names removed after the fact, except that Orange County, unlike Los Angeles, had no clear-cut rules in place at the time to do that.

That's neither fair nor legal, according to District Judge Valerie Baker Fairbank, who found that it violated the defendants' right to due process and ordered Orange County to pay $3.4 million in attorney fees.

Rackauckas now argues that the federal court has no authority to interfere with a state court's injunction. That's absurd. He's arguing that the defendants should have sought relief in state court while ignoring that his prosecutors dropped the case against them when they went to state court.

No one is suggesting that gang injunctions are illegal. Rather, the concern on the part of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and others representing the alleged gang members is that unlike other prosecutors who have strict guidelines for obtaining injunctions, Rackauckas has used whatever legal maneuvering he can to get what he wants.

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