Will gang injunctions make Modesto neighborhoods safer?

Gang injunctions, though popular with law enforcement and widely used in Southern California, remain controversial in some legal circles.

While Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager argues that restrictions on 20 members of the Deep South Side Norteños will improve the quality of life for residents in south Modesto, Public Defender Tim Bazar thinks the success or failure of the initiative will lie in its implementation.

To supporters, injunctions make neighborhoods safer because gang members can be penalized for actions that otherwise would be legal, such as hanging out in public places, confronting people who disapprove of their lifestyle and wearing clothes meant to show that the gang is a force to be reckoned with.

The county's top prosecutor hopes the new penalties will convince law-abiding citizens to clean up their neighborhoods and cooperate with the authorities when crimes occur.

"We think this will be an incredibly effective tool," Fladager said.

On the other side, critics worry that gang injunctions can cast too wide a net, criminalizing behavior that is typical among teenagers, but only in minority communities, and lumping small-time delinquents in with hard-core criminals who no longer deserve the benefit of the doubt.

Although Bazar isn't quite in that camp, he sees a downside, particularly because many of the behav- iors banned by gang injunctions already are banned for people who are convicted of gang-related crimes, serve time and are released on probation or parole.

"I've heard other people criticize this approach as a waste of time," Bazar said.

Enforcement unclear

Just how the injunction will be enforced -- and whether it will be embraced by law-abiding residents of a "safety zone" south of the Tuolumne River and west of Crows Landing Road -- remains to be seen.

First, prosecutors must jump through some procedural hoops.

Superior Court Judge John G. Whiteside gave temporary approval to the civil injunction June 12, when he issued an order that gives 20 named defendants a chance to contest the proposal at a hearing Thursday.

If the judge issues a preliminary injunction, the alleged gang members could be arrested and charged with a misdemeanor if they are caught engaging in any of 14 banned behaviors within the safety zone, like being caught with spray paint or tools used for graffiti, acting as a lookout for people selling drugs or being outside after curfew.

Prosecutors said they intend to add additional gang members to the injunction if the restrictions are allowed. Authorities said they have documented 51 Norteños who have allegiances to a neighborhood they call Deep South Side Modesto; they believe the gang has more than 150 members and associates.

Any named gang member could challenge the constitutionality of the injunction or argue that his inclusion is a mistake because he has no gang ties. If prosecutors prevail in court, the injunction and its restrictions become permanent.

People named in a permanent injunction would be subject to the court order indefinitely. They would have to petition the court and prove that they are not gang members to get off the list.

Gang injunctions were first used in Los Angeles in 1987 and now are imposed by communities throughout Southern California. They also have been used in San Francisco and San Jose, the Sacramento area and Fresno.

Deputy District Attorney Marlisa Ferreira, who filed Stanislaus County's injunction, said the constitutional- ity of using public nuisance laws to confront a gang problem was firmly established in 1997, when the California Supreme Court upheld a gang injunction in Santa Clara County.

Andre Segura, an attor- ney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said the high court ruling is narrowly tailored, leaving the door open for challenges.

Appellate courts have overturned gang injunctions in Oxnard and West Sacramento, ruling that the terms were too vague or faulting prosecutors for failing to give adequate notice to those affected by the restrictions. The cities returned with new plans.

The notion that the prosecutors and city attorneys may sue gangs if criminal enforcement falls short remains intact.

Blanket prohibition opposed

Although the ACLU opposes gang injunctions on principle, the group targets its efforts, to ensure that courts ask for clear and convincing evidence of gang membership before imposing conditions that can make it hard to go to school or work or roam freely in one's own neighborhood.

"Our number one concern is that they should have to present evidence against each person, or else it's this blanket prohibition against people who haven't been convicted of anything criminal," Segura said.

In Stanislaus County, prosecutors gave the judge extensive documentation about 20 suspected gang members, and said they would petition the court to add more gang members to the injunction once police officers and sheriff's deputies begin enforcement.

If a gang member violates the injunction, he can be charged with disobeying a court order, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum punishment of six months in jail.

Prosecutors said the likely punishment would be 30 or 60 days behind bars.

Offenders typically serve two-thirds of their sentences, so people arrested for violating the injunction could plead guilty or no contest, serve 20 days, and move on with their lives.

Litigation also could drag on for months, because defendants may put up $500, the 10 percent needed to post $5,000 bail, then return to court with a public defender month after month to challenge the allegations.

Bazar, whose office represents indigent defendants, said he will consider challenging the legality of the injunction when cases are filed.

Few studies on topic

Although gang injunctions have been used for two decades, their impact remains an open question, as there are few comprehensive studies on the topic.

A 2006 report by the Rand Group looked at anti-gang initiatives in Southern California but found that only Orange County had enough data to support a rigorous evaluation.

After reviewing calls for service in Santa Ana, researchers concluded that the injunction prompted an increase in reports about violent crime and a decrease in reports about property crime, but had no effect on overall crime.

A 2004 report by a team of researchers at the Univer- sity of Southern California says gang injunctions are popular with law enforcement and had a modest impact on crime in one San Bernardino neighborhood.

A survey of residents found that the injunction had no impact on gang graffiti, but small improvements on other quality of life indicators.

Fifteen percent of residents surveyed said gang members were less likely to hang out in public, 13 percent said they noticed fewer acts of gang intimidation and 9 percent noted an increase in police patrols.

Researchers noted that residents reported an increase in gang activity in adjacent neighborhoods where gang members were not targeted by an injunction.

Job training might help

The report also suggests that injunctions could be more effective if officials added job training and educational programs to engage gang members before they become hardened criminals -- a notion that was applauded by a professor who has testified as a defense expert in Modesto.

James Hernandez, a former Pittsburg police officer and criminal justice professor at California State University, Sacramento, said gang injunctions are a great idea, but can be easily abused if authorities try to criminalize any Mexican who happens to carry a screwdriver in a rough neighborhood.

The professor helped the ACLU challenge gang injunctions in Orange County and West Sacramento, but he said does not oppose them on principle or dismiss them out of hand. Instead, he said gang injunctions are as good or bad as the people who enforce them.

"If they're used well and judiciously," Hernandez said, "they can be a really effective tool."

Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at or 578-2338.

Related stories from Merced Sun-Star