SANTA ANA, Calif. – A Superior Court judge today rejected an attempt by the Orange County District Attorney’s Office to subject a 22-year-old Orange resident and three others to the provisions of an overreaching, preliminary gang injunction that criminalizes ordinary daily activities.
All four were represented by the ACLU of Southern California. The judge also found that the district attorney failed to prove that 11 other individuals in court today were gang members, and likewise excluded them from the injunction.
The judge’s decision clearly demonstrated that the District Attorney’s Office cast far too wide a net in its injunction against an alleged gang known as the Orange Varrio Cypress. Using faulty logic and guilt by association, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas tried to justify naming nongang members such as Ericka Aranda to the injunction simply because they were related or friends with an alleged member.
“The ease with which the District Attorney’s Office embraced this sweeping approach is troubling, and should make the public very nervous,” said Belinda Escobosa Helzer, a staff attorney for the Orange County office of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. “This haphazard, catch-all approach to cracking down on gangs ensnares innocent victims and threatens to take away their most basic freedoms — associating with family and friends.”
It’s rare for those targeted in gang injunctions to escape the harsh sanctions imposed. But the ACLU/SC has increasingly contested injunctions because they unfairly target communities of color, criminalize everyday activities and are often brought against individuals who often have no representation in court.
In the case of Aranda, Rackauckas’s office attempted to link her to the gang even though she has never claimed gang membership, participated in the gang or been convicted of a crime. The district attorney based proof of membership on three minor incidents, none of which demonstrated that she was or has ever been a gang membership.
In one of those incidents, officers claimed Aranda was a gang participant simply because she was at a street fair with a group of childhood friends. In another incident, she received a trespassing ticket, which was later dropped, for walking through an abandoned building in a short cut to a school in her neighborhood. In yet another disturbing incident, an officer claimed Aranda was a gang participant for no other apparent reason than that she was present at her own home when police served a search warrant on her uncle, an alleged gang member with a criminal history, who intermittently lives with her and her family.
“Law enforcement can’t throw out someone’s most basic civil liberties, simply based on an officer’s hunch that the person is a gang member,” said ACLU/SC Staff Attorney Peter Bibring. “Letting officers decide who is or isn’t subject to the injunction invites abuse and racial profiling.”
The overly broad and unconstitutional gang injunction affects a 3.78-square mile, mostly Latino neighborhood that covers nearly 16 percent of the city of Orange. It imposes probation-like conditions such as curfews, and severely limits individuals’ right to associate with family and friends, move freely within their own neighborhood and even attend political or religious activities.
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 move freely and associate with whomever they like.