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Just How Bad Is a Gang Enhancement Charge in California?

| Nov 26, 2019 | Criminal Law

California Police Maintain a “Gang Activity” Database that Can Be Used to Inflate Charges and Punishments

Should police be able to arrest you based on the tattoos you have or the clothes you wear? What about charging you with a crime you didn’t commit—just because you had loose connections to the guilty party? We don’t think that’s fair, but California’s gang enhancement charges allow officers to unfairly police anyone suspected of being part of a criminal group.

These laws result in men, primarily men of color, facing enhanced sentences on the basis of alleged gang involvement. A discriminatory and obscure system tells police who to target without even informing the suspects. If you end up on the list, you may have no way to clear your name.

A Flawed Basis for Gang Enforcement

The “Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act” (STEP) passed in the 1980s to reduce gang activity in California. One of the enforcement mechanisms detailed by the act was a list of suspected gang members shared among the state’s police. CalGang, the resulting database, has been used to track thousands of “gang members and affiliates,” giving police permission to increase surveillance and bring unjustified charges against anyone with alleged gang ties.

Listings Don’t Pass Muster

Maintained by private committee, CalGang has little oversight or transparency. If this sounds like a system that’s ripe for abuse, that’s because it is: A recent audit found many entries had been made without sufficient evidence or notification. Still others should have been removed due to 5 years of inactivity. Investigators even found some listees who were added before their second birthday.

Aside from violating people’s rights, this database puts them in danger. Anyone who allegedly “benefits” from gang criminality could be brought up on charges regardless of their connection to the wrongdoing.

Law Enforcement Targeting Is Unjust

Police and prosecutors often try to blame presumed gang members for crimes they didn’t commit. Even when the evidence clearly points to another person’s guilt, law enforcement may try to build a case that supports internal, unproven “knowledge” of someone’s gang ties. They can also, under STEP, hold those who didn’t participate in a crime responsible by claiming they benefitted from it. Or, they can introduce evidence from other crimes committed by people they believe to be fellow gang members in an attempt to prove the defendant guilty by association.

What Are California’s Gang Enhancements?

A listing in CalGang can threaten someone’s right to fair sentencing. STEP is broad and allows prosecutors to ask for harsh sentences for anyone with alleged gang ties. Penalties include:

  • Up to 1 year in jail or between 16 months and 3 years in prison for anyone who “actively participates” in a gang
  • Additional prison time for any alleged gang member convicted of a felony linked to gang activity
    • 2-4 years for most felonies
    • 5 years for “serious” felonies
    • 10 years for violent felonies
  • Certain crimes committed in alleged partnership with a gang may result in increased mandatory minimums
    • 15 years in prison for home invasion robbery
    • 7 years in prison for extortion
    • Between 180 days and 1 year in jail for a public misdemeanor
    • Between 1 and 3 years for a public felony

Can I Fight A Gang Enhancement?

The STEP Act allows a judge to ignore gang enhancements if it would be more just to do so. If you want a chance at a fair sentence, you need a lawyer experienced in defending clients against allegations of gang activity. You may be able to argue gang enhancements should not be valid because:

  • You didn’t commit the crime you’re being charged with
  • You are not an active gang member
  • Your actions were not in concert with or for the benefit of a gang

When facing criminal charges, you shouldn’t have to answer for the actions of others. Accusations of gang activity are used to prompt baseless fear and prejudice among jurors. We are here to keep the criminal justice system fair in the face of unethical law enforcement manipulations.

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