In new tactic, L.A. goes after gangs' money
The city won $5 million in cash damages against a gang in the first verdict under a new law.
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The damages collected in the suit will be placed in a fund to aid the neighborhoods affected by the gang activity, says Bruce Riordan, director of the city attorney office's antigang operations and a former federal prosecutor of the 18th Street gang and Mexican Mafia.Skip to next paragraph
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The fund will be administered by the City Council, he says, and will most likely go toward security cameras, graffiti removal, or beautification of parks.
"Gang members are not necessarily the best at saving their money, but they do buy stuff and invest in property and make cash down payments," says Mr. Riordan.
One gang member, Frank "Puppet" Martinez made as much as $40,000 a month while still behind bars, he says. At the home of one of his relatives, investigators found $444,605 in cash, stashed in storage boxes and a vacuum cleaner bag. Included on the bills were 18th Street gang markings as well as street and collectors' names.
Concerns over civil liberties
Los Angeles has been at the forefront of using public nuisance injunctions against gang members since the 1980s, and other cities such as San Francisco have followed its lead, says Austen Parrish, vice dean for academic affairs and professor of law at Southwestern University School of Law, Los Angeles.
The city currently has 463 known gangs with 26,000 members, according to the Los Angeles Police Department.
But the use of injunctions has been controversial, Mr. Parrish says, because of "perceived selective enforcement and various civil rights issues."
The new law, too, "may raise significant civil rights issues depending on how it's used," Mr Parrish adds.
Unlike with organized groups, street gang members may be hard to identify.
"Gangs are not like a corporation with a company house and car. There are potentially lots of arguments over who is in the gang and what that means," says Peter Bibring, staff attorney for the Southern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Some local observers have already questioned the motivations of the city attorney and the efficacy of the law. "Gang injunctions are showy, quick-fix, politically-motivated PR gimmicks that do nothing to reduce gang violence," says Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable.
Guilt by association, he says, ensures criminalization of "countless numbers of young blacks and Latinos who are not gang members."
It would be better, he adds, to fund skills training, drug counseling and rehabilitation, mentoring, and family support programs."
Where gang members keep their money and other assets is another question that troubles civil libertarians. They want to know whether the rights of those not engaged in criminal activity will be protected.
"Suppose an alleged gang member's grandmother received some jewelry … do prosecutors suddenly get to go after her house as well?" asks Mr. Bibring.
"It's one thing if the bags of money are marked, 'income from cocaine' – but how due process gets sorted out becomes a much more difficult problem," he says. "This is potentially a hugely complicated question."