SANTA ANA, Calif. – The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California filed a class-action lawsuit today against Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and the City of Orange Police Department for illegally placing dozens of residents under a gang injunction after first deliberately preventing them from arguing in court that they don’t belong to a gang.
The actions by Rackaukas and the OPD constitute an end run around the most basic tenets of constitutional due process, and have imposed probation-like conditions on dozens of youths and adults, subjecting them to curfews and severely limiting their right to associate with family and friends. The gang injunction restricts their right to move freely within their own neighborhood, and to participate in political or religious activities in a large portion of the city – all without a court ever having ruled that they should be subject to these conditions.
This abuse of the prosecutorial process began in February, when Rackaukas filed a complaint in the Orange County Superior Court to obtain a gang injunction against the Orange Varrio Cypress gang. The proposed injunction named more than 115 residents as gang members and 150 unspecified associates of the gang.
After 62 of the individuals named in the injunction challenged the allegations that they are gang members or that a gang injunction is justified, Rackaukas dropped them from the complaint – before they had a chance to have their day in court. Then, a few weeks later, Rackaukas turned around and served those very same individuals with an injunction obtained by default against the Orange Varrio Cypress gang and “all members of the gang, whether or not named in the original lawsuit.”
“District Attorney Rackaukas is playing a game of bait and switch. No public servant should be allowed to subvert the judicial process and deprive residents of their right to be heard in court or develop a full and fair record,” said Belinda Escobosa Helzer, a staff attorney with the ACLU/SC’s Orange County office. “As a result of his actions, dozens of individuals are left in the untenable position of being forced to abide by a gang injunction, even though no court has determined they should be subject to its restrictions. They cannot engage in lawful daily activities or continue to live their lives and exercise their freedoms without risking arrest and incarceration for violations of this untested injunction.”
Among those who have been subjected to the injunction and the unlawful and overzealous enforcement of it is Miguel Bernal Lara, a 20-year-old college student. He was served with the injunction though he was originally dismissed from the suit, and is now afraid to leave his home or participate in any protest against the injunction – even at Orange City Hall, which is located in the injunction area -- for fear he will be targeted by police.
Another resident, a 17-year old boy who was dropped from Rackaukas’ original suit but was later placed under the injunction, can’t even walk home from school because of the injunction’s severe restrictions. In August, police cited him for “associating” with an alleged gang member when he was on his way home from summer school. The alleged gang member was a school friend and neighbor.
“It’s outrageous that the district attorney is depriving dozens of residents of their basic due process rights. None of the individuals represented in this suit have had the opportunity to defend themselves before a judge, yet they are being treated like criminals,” said Hector Villagra, director of the ACLU/SC’s Orange County office. “Nobody should have their liberty taken from them without the chance to present their case.”
The overly broad and unconstitutional gang injunction affects a 3.78-square mile neighborhood that covers nearly 16 percent of the city of Orange. Touted by law enforcement as a tough and necessary crime-fighting tool, aggressive gang injunctions have been used largely in poor communities of color with little proven effect. In pursuing the injunctions, law enforcement has eroded community trust, separated childhood friends and endangered the basic rights of nongang members to exercise free speech, move freely and associate with whomever they like.
Image: ACLU/SC staff attorney Belinda Escobosa Helzer with Miguel Bernal Lara, a 20-year-old college student falsely accused of gang ties.