About four months after the Weekly first highlighted the controversy surrounding a gang injunction filed against numerous Latino residents of the city of Orange, the ACLU of Southern California announces today that it is filing a class-action lawsuit in the matter. Details of the lawsuit are being announced at a press conference at 10 a.m. today--the same moment the press release they sent us yesterday becomes fit for public consumption--so we don't yet have the details.
Update: Technical difficulties prevent us from sharing some exciting video footage I thought I shot of the press conference, but fortunately, I took some notes. Here are a few highlights:
ACLU staff attorney Belinda Escobosa-Helzer explains that the lawsuit is a response to tactics by the Orange County District Attorney that violate both due process and the California Constitution. Specifically, she alleges, the DA's office brought a civil nuisance abatement lawsuit against 115 residents of the Cypress neighborhood of Orange, asserting the individuals were members of the Orange Varrio Cypress gang. Then when 62 of those people showed up in court to contest the allegation they were gang members, the DA dropped them from the lawsuit.
So what's the problem?
Well, having done that, the DA turned around and served them with an injunction as gang members, meaning any of them can be arrested for such crimes as hanging out in the front yard with friends or family members. "The DA is playing a game of bait-and-switch," Escobosa-Helzer concluded. "Due process is the cornerstone of our public policy and we intend to hold the DA and Orange PD responsible for their actions."
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With that, Escobosa-Helzer introduced community activist Yvonne Elizondo, who argued that the money being wasted on the expensive lawsuit against the gang would be better spent on community programs that keep kids out of gangs, a notion seconded by Bruce Warren, owner of the DWB Boxing Club in Orange. Warren, however, allowed that the gang is a major nuisance in his town, and said "something needs to be done about that." Paul Guzman, who's lived in the Cypress neighborhood for decades, talked about how police have been going after people in the barrio his entire life, harassing residents "generation by generation."
Echoing that complaint was one of the targets of the injunction, Miguel Lara, a 20-year-old freshman at Santiago Valley College who is studying criminal justice and looks less like a gangbanger than a typical college kid. He claims police added him to the list in retaliation for his participation in an anti-gang protest. "The cops are retaliating and don't want us to fight the right way, legally," he said. "They want us to step down and we won't allow that."
"The way that we have proceeded is allowed by state law, plain and simple," counters DA supervisor John Anderson, who helped design the injunction program. "This is just a second bite at the same apple. They've already made similar motions in state court and lost. They also appear to be arguing against injunctions, but California allows them and the law is pretty well settled." Anderson noted that Orange County is one of the few counties suing individuals in addition to the gang itself. "We wanted to make it personal so defendants know this is serious and that we want you to get out of the gang."
While the DA's office did drop several individuals from the nuisance lawsuit, Anderson acknowledged that those individuals could still be arrested for violating the gang injunction. "That's based on Orange PD saying these people are in the gang," he said. "You must prove as part of the violation that the individual is an active participant in the gang. But these people will not have a civil case judgment against them on their permanent record. The easiest way to avoid being prosecuted on the injunction is to cease membership in the gang--which is what we want them to do in the first place."