Gang cases bring tougher sentences, make tougher trials, district attorney says

By Cathy Kelly, Mercury News
Posted: 06/26/2009 01:30:20 AM PDT
Updated: 06/26/2009 04:32:09 AM PDT

SANTA CRUZ — Repercussions for gang-related crimes include longer potential prison sentences, and though the debate on the virtue of increased incarceration continues, county prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys agree on one thing — gang cases are tough.

One notable provision in the 1988 California Street Gang Terrorism and Enforcement Act is a sentencing enhancement that can add from two years to life to a convicted violent felon’s sentence if prosecutors prove the crime was done to benefit, in association with or at the direction of a criminal street gang.

Another provision is a standalone charge that the violence was done with the specific intent to promote, further or assist in criminal conduct by gang members. It carries a sentence of up to three years.

Proving the charges often involves testimony from police officers who have documented “contacts” with those believed to be engaging in gang activity — from shouting gang slogans during a violent attack to having tattoos of gang symbols.

Under the law, officers are allowed to testify about the accused person’s previous criminal behavior or the behavior of those with whom he or she associates, or even the behavior of others in the gang.

But Santa Cruz prosecutor Charlie Baum said painting those dark pictures cuts both ways with jurors.

“Gangs elicit a lot of emotion,” he said. “You have those who take it to be racial profiling or biased cops and others think, It’s a gang, you’re guilty.’

“I’d love to say gang cases are easy, but they’re not.”

On the other side, public defender Tom Wallraff says even the allegation a defendant is a gang member can make their defense an uphill climb.

“It can be hard for jurors to keep an open mind and look at them with the presumption of innocence,” he said. “And it’s harder to defend a whole bunch of uncharged stuff.”

Prosecuting the underlying crime is no walk in the park either, District Attorney Bob Lee said, as witnesses can be reluctant to testify, either due to sympathy for the gang or fear of retribution.

“They are extremely difficult; the traditional ways of building a case simply don’t exist,” he said. “You don’t have any witness statements. You can have a murder at a party with 50 people in the room and no one sees anything.”

Wallraff said such silence does not necessarily mean a potential witness is being uncooperative: “Someone’s refusal to corroborate could be factually correct. You can ascribe anything to a gang case, but you might still just not have a case.”

In a recent trial, a man stabbed in the neck by an alleged gang member gave a completely different description of the men’s clothing than the person he was with when the attack occurred. The alleged assailant was arrested a short time later, wearing what the companion described. The victim at one point told police he feared for the safety of his young sisters if he identified the gang member.

the prison SENTENCES

Reaction to gang sentencing runs the gamut in the larger community as well.

A new group called the Santa Cruz Alliance Against Gang Enhancements organized a small rally outside Santa Cruz County Superior Court this month, carrying signs calling enhancements unfair and urging “prevention not enforcement.”

One of the demonstrators, Tomas Alejo, a 37-year-old UC Santa Cruz sociology student, said more emphasis should be placed on providing support to at-risk youth.

“The majority of active gang members are adolescents,” he said. “And when young people are incarcerated for a long time, it stops the maturation process. And prison is chaos, especially with gang enhancements; they are sent to a maximum security area.”

Alejo agreed that if gang activity is well-defined and the sentences and rehabilitation options are more appropriate, the law could work.

County Sheriff Phil Wowak said any accountability includes some deterrence, but that is a bonus, as he believes gang enhancements are primarily about holding people responsible.

Often in gang cases, the crimes are ones that the person would not commit on their own, Wowak said.

“The accountability piece is really the most important,” he said. “People perform these acts for the benefit of the gang or to further their status in the gang. It’s really a criminal act that goes beyond your typical assault or drug case, and especially in homicide cases.”

Wowak said he believes in alternative education and programs that deter violence as well, and supports those at Juvenile Hall. Barrios Unidos teaches there weekly, he said.


Another man at the rally said his family moved to Santa Cruz from San Jose in part due to violence there, and that he understands the problem of gang members selling drugs and committing violent crimes. But the law has been used too widely, Robert Erlich said, mentioning a friend who was “hit up by Surenos” because he was wearing red in Santa Cruz and then arrested on a gang paraphernalia charge due to his clothing.

“They try to find anything to lay on them,” Erlich said.

A Watsonville mother had similar concerns and said her sons were unfairly “profiled” as gang members after one was accused of being in a fight and that both ended up in jail, losing jobs with State Parks in Monterey and the California Conservation Corps.

Maria Sanguino said she has lived in Watsonville for more than 20 years and that recent police activity on her street disappoints and saddens her.

Her sons were never in a gang, she said. They graduated from high school, got jobs and paid for their own cars and insurance and rent.

But officers investigating her younger son’s involvement in the fight, in which someone used a bat and someone lost some teeth, found some photographs about a different fight on her older son’s computer, she said, and he was arrested. But the photographs were of body slamming at a party, Sanguino said.

And while public defenders tell her the young men face misdemeanors and perhaps can get their jobs back, she remains concerned. Sanguino has seen police harass youth on the street, turning on the police car siren, laughing and taunting them, she said.

“It’s really bad; I’m disappointed in them,” Sanguino said. “And I complain and they don’t listen. I want to ask them: Who can my sons hang out with? Because supposedly everyone is a gang member.

“They can’t even be in front of the house; they see three juveniles together and five or six police come. It gets me really mad.”

Watsonville Police Deputy Chief Manny Solano said officers walk a delicate line sometimes when trying to combat gang violence in a certain neighborhood and keep track of gang activity without stepping on toes.

The recent attention is warranted, he said, reciting statistics on the number of crimes in a three-block radius, which includes the street where Sanguino lives with her husband and sons.

Police recently met with Councilman Luis Alejo, who represents that area, due to concerns residents had with crime and with some police activity, Solano said.

“Meetings like that can be good; they put everyone in check,” he said. “We know we need to be sensitive. We hear those concerns. People say, Look, we want police, but why is my son or daughter always stopped?’ It’s delicate and we might ruffle some feathers, but with this amount of violence, we’ll be there.

“There is a segment which has a stronghold in that area.”

Since October, in that neighborhood near City Hall, there have been 15 assaults, six robberies, three attempted murders, two shootings into a home, 24 drug-related cases and 25 reports of graffiti, he said.

Police are trying to prevent violence and also document gang activity knowing they might be called to testify about gang members. They know they can’t stereotype people as gang members simply for wearing a certain color in a certain neighborhood, he said.

Examples of signs they can use are the person’s own words, he said, as sometimes they will shout at them, or admit to police they were jumped in to a gang, or they have gang tattoos.

In a recent trial of gang members accused of stabbing a man in a rival gang’s territory, prosecutors sought to prove the gang crime against one 19-year-old who “acted as a backup,” standing by during the stabbing, by conduct police documented during the past three years.

The man had flashed a gang sign before one attack, shouted gang slogans during a fight and was documented as being with other gang members wearing gang colors and having gang markings on his car, mattress, nightstand, mirror, wall and on a tree in his yard. Police even testified that he got a new gang tattoo last year.

To prove a gang is criminal and has a pattern of criminal behavior, only certain crimes qualify, Solano said, including murder, assault, witness intimidation and illegal narcotics distribution to further the gang.

“It’s a lot of work,” Solano said. “We have dedicated staff in enforcement and in-house who prepare gang packets. They need to meet strict criteria to be classified as a gang member and we know we might have to prove that in court. And being with gang members or wearing red or blue or looking like a gang member is not enough. Some people are misinformed.”

The larger community

And there are many in the community whose primary concern with gangs is the harm they cause.

At the recent courthouse rally objecting to harsh gang sentences, one Live Oak woman who walked by with her son said gang crimes seem like hate crimes to her and maybe should carry higher sentences.

“It has to be proven, of course, but gangs don’t seem to have any respect for people or for life,” Elizabeth King said.

Her 23-year-old son, Kyle, said many of his friends used to form their own small tagging “gangs,” but that he has seen more violent gangs come into the Santa Cruz area in the past 18 months or so.

He said he has seen how older gang members recruit younger people to “do the dirty work.”

“I know how peer pressure is, but I don’t know why it has to be that way,” he said. “Santa Cruz is not that kind of town; it’s a fun town, a place to be outside and surf and skate and do things like that.”

And while legislators and law enforcement undoubtedly hoped the longer prison terms would be more of a deterrent to gang members, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

It has changed the way some gang members act when committing a gang crime, some say, with members avoiding identifying their specific gang when confronting a rival member, for instance, knowing that might make it easier to convict them of a gang crime.

But obviously, the gang culture and its violence continues.

In February, a jury convicted a young Santa Cruz man of a gang-related drive-by shooting on Highway 1 that seriously injured two men. The defendant, Ivan Galvan, smiled through the trial and remained defiant at his sentencing hearing in April. Galvan is now serving life in prison for the 2006 shooting.

“I do care; I care about my family,” Galvan said at his sentencing hearing. “But I also can’t show them I’m weak.”

Posted by on Jun 26 2009. Filed under News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

1 Comment for “Gang cases bring tougher sentences, make tougher trials, district attorney says”

  1. Carl Bryant

    Prosecuting gangs is not so difficult.They’re committing horrific crimes everyday in america.But most of these so called gangsters are not American.These people have moved in and taken over curtain states here.It’s not difficult to prosecute american citizens when they break the law so,why is it difficult to prosecute non-americans?AMERICA IS IN FOR A RUDE AWAKENING!

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