The rantings of a Public Defender constantly fighting against society's pervasive Police Industrial Complex. Enjoy the unique perspective of one whose life's work is to fight the system through the system.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Gang Prosecutions - Politically Correct Prosecutions going after Low-hanging fruit

I've written about it before, but it's become ever more absurd where I practice law. As noted in this Los Angeles Times article, the Los Angeles DA is filing ever more cases with "gang allegations" against people, no matter what the case, increasing exponentially the amount of time people are getting in prison.

First of all, what am I talking about? California has passed a number of laws aimed at gang members over the years, generally in Penal Code Section 186.22. They have basically made it so that if a gang member commits a crime, the punishment is significantly larger than if any other member of society does it. Fair enough, one may say, gang members are wreaking havoc on society.

But, consider the effects. 18 year old kids who spray graffiti on a wall are suddenly being punished not with misdemeanors and a few hours of community service, or even a little bit of jail, but with felonies. And not just any felonies, but due to the gang allegation, the charges are now "strikes" (meaning that for the rest of the kid's life, he faces prison for any offense, no matter how minor, and possibly 25-life for even the most minor of offenses. This follows him forever). Furthermore, they face mandatory PRISON when convicted in most cases (that's to be contrasted with county jail, which people normally get). The prison minimum is generally at least 3 years 8 months, and can go up to 8, 9, 10 years for some of these extremely minor offenses.

Again, we hate gang members, so what the hell, they deserve more than the average person, right? That's the general consensus among society.

However, it gets even worse. Due to the fact that there is this "allegation," it must be proven to the jury. How is that proven to the jury? A police officer ("gang cop") gets on the stand and talks about how evil gangs are in general, how evil this gang is, and all of the terrible things the gang has done. They talk about what great ties this person has to the gang, what his nickname is, and generally slimes him by association with others and the things that they have done.

So consider a robbery case, one committed by a gang member, another committed by a non-gang member (or a gang member against whom the prosecution chose not to pursue the gang allegation). In the case without the gang allegation, the prosecution must prove that this person committed the offense, and if identity is not very strong, the person may very well be acquitted due to the weaknesses in the identification.

In the case of the defendant with the gang allegation, the prosecution will also present a huge amount of evidence that will amount to, not only bad character evidence, but, even worse, character assassination using guilt by association. The identification against the person may be weak, but no matter, the jury will hear all of this evidence about what a bad person this defendant is, if only by way of his associations, and will feel that where there is smoke, there must be fire.

Think about how insidious this is when the prosecution starts seeking more gang allegations against people. This means that more and more people will be charged with exceptionally weak cases, with the prosecution knowing that these people would never be convicted absent the gang allegation. Or, you get cases where the prosecution wants someone so badly that they file gang allegations on people who have weak cases just to strengthen the substantive guilt part of the case.

The net result, more innocent people convicted, more cynical presentations to the jury ("he's a gang member, convict him or else he'll go out and do a drive-by in your neighborhood"), longer prison sentences for less and less serious charges. More people saddled with strikes that result in life sentences later for ever more minor offenses. People who make minor mistakes as kids that they used to be able to outgrow now following people forever, with no chance of redemption.

I can't tell you how many ex-gang members there are out there in society who are making good with their lives in their mid-20's into their 30's and beyond. They are all over, although you probably don't notice them anymore. They could be waiting on your table, or supplying the restaurant that you go to, or even could be your professor at college. These 2nd chances are a hallmark of democratic society that allows for people to move from one strata of society to another. By taking these chances away from kids when they are very young, forever, we risk creating a permanent underclass, and worse. We risk pushing people like this into permanent gang status (they have no incentive to leave because no other part of society will ever take them) or warehousing them forever for even the most minor types of offenses imaginable.

So, there are very real world consequences for these idiotic choices that the prosecution have engaged in pursuing excessive gang allegations against these teenagers. And it is only going to get worse, in the minds of prosecutors, these are not people, only low-lying fruit that is ripe for easy picking.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

6 Month Hiatus - Over?

I can't believe it's been 6 months since I've last blogged. Things had slowed down for me dramatically, mostly because I've been so busy (it's good to know for all of you taxpayers out there that Public Defender Dude has been earning his keep while eating at the public trough).

It's not that I've lost inspiration, things I see still bother me quite a bit. I've done several trials of late where absolutely absurd gang allegations were being charged against my clients, completely depriving them of a right to a fair trial. One was in an attempted murder trial that the police claimed to have witness my client do, which I hung. The other one was a robbery case that was a complete ID case, in which I'm quite sure the jury heard enough of what they needed from the gang officer to convince them that any two people sitting in the defendant's chairs with those tattoos would've been enough to convict (not to say that the person may not have deserved to be convicted, but I'm quite sure that the burden of proof dropped dramatically from beyond a reasonable doubt to something less after the cop's gang testimony).

One reason I haven't commented on those trials (don't worry, I've done others as well), is that, as a pretty anonymous blogger, too much comment on those trials during the trial would completely blow my anonymity. The other reason is that I'm just too beat, and there is just too much to say. Synthesizing it down to a single post is just too difficult.

I also get the feeling I've said so much about so many of the other things on my mind, it would just get too redundant.

So, I've said nothing.

That being said, I have quite a few thoughts on things such as Phil Spector, the firings of the US Attorneys, Scooter Libby, the death penalty, and other things.

So, I'll be back sooner rather than later, probably with a little blurb on Spector or the US Attorneys, or the future indictment of our present attorney general. There is just so much to talk about, I've been paralyzed by too many choices. Forgive me, to those who have written me emails wondering where I've been (and there have actually been quite a few). But, you've got me back.