Three advocacy organizations took aim at one of the mainstays of Los Angeles’ war on gangs today, filing a class action suit against the city’s gang injunction program.
Born in L.A. and now used throughout California and seven other states, the injunction is a type of of civil nuisance abatement suit that restricts the associations and movements of alleged gang members. Since 1987, Los Angeles has successfully filed 49 gang injunctions restricting the activities of over 9,000 alleged members of 79 gangs. Statewide, there are currently more than 150 active gang injunctions.
The city attorney’s office and the Los Angeles Police Department consider the program a success, crediting it in part with plummeting gang-related crime and homicides over the past two decades. However, civil libertarians and community advocates say the injunctions subject young blacks and Latinos, particularly men, to unconstitutional requirements and stack the deck against them because there is no right to court-appointed legal representation in civil court. Anyone seeking to challenge inclusion in a gang injunction must hire an attorney.
The suit filed today names Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck and City Attorney Mike Feuer. It was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, the Youth Justice Coalition and the Urban Peace Institute on behalf of Peter Arellano and Jose Reza. The two Los Angeles natives found themselves subject to gang injunction restrictions even though, the suit claims, neither was ever served with a court order or allowed to challenge the designation in court.
“Gang injunctions, databases and enhancements create a different kind of justice based on geography, race, income and age,” said Kim McGill, the director of the Youth Justice Coalition. “These measures have driven people further into the underground economy by cutting them off from jobs, education, resources and their communities.”
The police department and city attorney unilaterally determine who is to be covered by a gang injunction, which often draws on confidential gang intelligence maintained in the police department’s own records and CalGang, the controversial and secretive statewide gang database that a state auditor’s report recently characterized as seriously flawed.
“LAPD employs a … one sided process in the decision of including individuals in the CalGang Criminal Intelligence System,” the complaint alleges.
The stories of Arellano and Reza illustrate the most trenchant criticisms leveled against law enforcement tools like gang injunctions and the CalGang database: They offer no means for individuals to challenge law enforcement’s information about suspected gang ties, and that information – whether accurate or not – has direct real-world consequences.
Arellano, a 21-year-old Echo Park native, was served in June 2015 with a gang injunction alleging he was involved with the Big Top Locos gang. He was added into an injunction against the gang in his neighborhood filed two years earlier. He says he “feels that he is under house arrest” because the injunction allows police to stop and question him anywhere in his neighborhood. According to the complaint, Arellano doesn’t socialize in his neighborhood and works far away to avoid contact with LAPD. His father is subject to the same injunction.
Reza, a 39-year-old union carpenter, is subject to the Big Hazard gang injunction that covers the public housing project where he grew up, Ramona Gardens. Although he moved out of the public housing complex in 1999, Reza was served with the injunction in October 2006. He now lives in Whittier and, even though he still has family and friends in Ramona Gardens, he does not go back to visit them because, the complaint says, LAPD believes “his cousins and lifelong friends are also members of the Big Hazard gang.” Reza has even turned down carpentry jobs in the public housing complex.
“I’m not sure many people who live in Los Angeles realize how much gang injunctions can change your everyday life,” said Carmen Iguina, an attorney with the Southern California American Civil Liberties Union.
The lawsuit alleges that injunctions always have been approved by default, since no defendants ever brought a legal challenge to a gang injunction in Los Angeles. In Orange County, court challenges to gang injunctions filed by District Attorney Tony Rackauckas in 2013 resulted in a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision stating that a gang injunction that doesn’t provide named individuals with adequate due process is unconstitutional.
However, the new lawsuit filed today alleges that Los Angeles authorities are ignoring that federal ruling. Moreover, the appeals process created by LAPD and the city attorney in 2007 that allows alleged gang members to petition to be removed from L.A.’s gang injunctions does not provide adequate due process. The city does not have to justify denying a petition for removal, nor can the petitioner review evidence of their alleged gang ties.
According to the complaint, fewer than 50 of the more than 9,000 people subject to L.A. gang injunctions have succeeded in this appeal process over the past decade.