The gang capital of the world is taking a new tack against them: cash damages.
The city of Los Angeles, plagued by 23,000 violent gang crimes since 2004, including 784 murders and 12,000 felony assaults, announced Tuesday that it had won its first civil judgment, for $5 million, against a criminal gang that had dominated the heroin trade downtown for decades.
The verdict could bode well for another first-of-its-kind lawsuit the city filed last month that goes after all assets of gang leaders, not just those associated with their criminal activity. Both suits seek to plow the money back into improving the neighborhoods affected by the gangs through a fund.
"By giving prosecutors more tools to fight gang activity at the local level, we are protecting our communities at the same time [that] we're able to strengthen our statewide anti-gang efforts," said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in a statement released with the announcement of the $5 million verdict against the 5th and Hill gang in L.A.
The civil suits were filed under different amendments to state laws, one passed in 2007 and one in 2008, designed to strengthen authorities' ability to control gangs. The 2007 amendment allows law enforcement to seize assets associated with criminal conduct. But the 2008 law goes even further – it allows prosecutors to collect damages from gang members' personal assets, too.
The December suit against the 18th Street gang is the first to make use of the 2008 amendment.
"We're sending a message to gang leaders across this city," said City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo at a press conference last month. "If you break the law, we will not only find you, arrest you, and put you behind bars, we will also take away your money, your property, your homes, and your cars. Every penny we strip away will be returned to the neighborhoods."
The tactic of trying to cripple organizations by taking away their assets has been commonly used against the mafia. More recently, it has been used against white supremacist organizations. In 2000, the Southern Poverty Law Center won a $6.3 million verdict against the Aryan Nations that forced the organization to give up its 20-acre compound in Idaho.
The center won its most recent case last November, getting $2.5 million from the Imperial Klans of America on behalf of a teenager assaulted by Klan members in rural Kentucky.
Money to repair neighborhoods
The City Attorney's office says it is moving against the 18th Street gang on behalf of residents who can't file suit themselves because they can't afford the expenses and they fear retaliation. Gangs control certain neighborhoods by exacting so-called "street taxes" on home and business owners as well as street vendors.
The suit seeks compensation for property damage, emotional distress, personal injury, and intangibles such as residents not being able to use public parks because of gang activity.
It names nine leaders of the 18th Street gang, which has operated for years in the Pico-Union and Westlake areas. One of the leaders, Ruben "Night Owl" Castro, is serving multiple life terms in a federal maximum security prison but still allegedly controls two gang subgroups, the Shatto Park Locos and the Hoover Locos.
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.
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."