By Doug Irving
The Orange County Register
Police and prosecutors violated the constitutional rights of dozens of suspected gang members by enforcing a gang injunction against them without first giving them a court hearing, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.
The American Civil Liberties Union cheered the ruling as a "major victory" in its two-year fight against the injunction, which targets the Orange Varrio Cypress gang. The Orange County District Attorney's Office is considering an appeal.
The ruling does not change the injunction itself, which prohibits members of the gang from associating with each other in public, wearing gang clothing or being out late at night. But it does challenge how prosecutors and Orange police were using the injunction.
Suspected gang members were first notified in February 2009 of the injunction, which created a "safety zone" of nearly four square miles in Old Towne and West Orange. When some of them went to court to challenge their inclusion, the District Attorney's Office dismissed them as named defendants.
But the final injunction targeted the gang as a whole, as well as any members – named or unnamed. Several dozen people who had been dismissed as named defendants were later served with the injunction nonetheless.
That violated their right to fight their case in court, U.S. District Judge Valerie Baker Fairbank ruled. She ordered police and prosecutors not to enforce the injunction against those whose names had been removed from the injunction, fewer than 60 people in all.
"The way the District Attorney's Office made these determinations should make the public very nervous," Belinda Escobosa Helzer, director of the ACLU's Orange County office, said in a prepared statement. "This method of cracking down on gangs ensnares innocent victims and threatens to take away their most basic freedoms."
Assistant District Attorney John Anderson had argued that there's nothing unusual about prosecutors adding suspects to a gang injunction after it's already in place. Anyone arrested for breaking the rules of the injunction, he said, could challenge the evidence that put them there when they appear in criminal court.
The judge's ruling that those suspects should have individual hearings before they're included in the injunction "rewrites centuries of injunction law," Anderson said. "It bestows upon criminal street gang members greater constitutional protections than apply to union members, war opponents and anti-abortion protesters," he said.
"The prospects of an appeal are strong," he added.