The District Attorney's office stunned ACLU attorneys arguing the cases of five defendants named in the city of Orange's latest gang injunction when it filed yesterday to completely dismiss the lawsuit against their five defendants and 57 others. The cases were set to go to trial July 6 and the ACLU was actively seeking information, documents, depositions with Orange police officers and the evidence the DA's office says it has to prove that those names are indeed active gang members.
"What we did was we said, 'Okay, you make all of these allegations, prove it.' And they didn't want to be forced to prove it," says the ACLU's Belinda Helzer, one of two staff attorneys working on the case. "That or they didn't believe they had any evidence to back up what they were alleging."
The reason the dismissal should be cause for concern, Helzer says, is because "The DA is pushing through these gang injunctions where there is no evidence. They're not willing to follow through once someone voices opposition, stands up and says, no you're not going to do this."
A collective voice of opposition in the historic Orange community came immediately after the injunction was served in late February. The process which prosecutors normally wrap up in a few short months was duly protested, thwarted and legally challenged by community members from the Cypress neighborhood with deep roots in the county's fruit picking and packaging industries who have -- in the months since the lawsuit was served to more than 100 defendants -- sought big-name legal aid, formed an "Orange County Youth Injunction Defense Committee", held a vigil and protested the inclusion of a historic mural in the lawsuit, petitioned to have Judge Daniel Didier (who has rubber stamped every other injunction in the county) removed from presiding over the case, appeared on an evening radio news program, and appeared on Channel 4 and Telemundo.
"It's really an example of a necessity that the neighborood really be involved with what's going on," says Helzer, who was originally contacted by Yvonne Elizondo, a community activist who works with at-risk youth and spearheaded many of the community meetings, sought legal aid and organized the vigils held in the community since February.
John Anderson, assistant DA in charge of gang injunctions, says there was no particular reason why the 62 cases were dismissed (all had responded to the case in one form or another). 30 of those people were juveniles, and because of a legal loophole that would have allowed them to void the injunction because they did not have legal representation, their cases were dropped, he says.
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The objective, says Anderson, was to examine whether or not the method of naming individuals to an injunction was more beneficial than just naming a gang in general. The DA's office believed that by naming defendants in the lawsuit, criminal enforcement would be easier. "What we did was examine our existing five injunctions to determine if we were getting the benefits we had anticipated we would by naming individual defendants rather than the gang and we decided we really weren't." The burden of proving someone's active gang membership was still required of prosecutors in criminal court, something he says the DA's office thought could be avoided by naming people in a lawsuit up front.
The DA's strategy now is more like other parts of the state, he says, and not much has changed for those whose cases were dropped, he argues. "I heard some very unfortunate information that the named defendants that the case was dismissed against can't have the injunction enforced," he says, which, he says, is incorrect.
"So long as we can prove that they're active participants in a criminal case, which is a much higher standard, they can still be held to the same terms of the injunction as when they were named."
The DA's office sought to have the entire gang, Orange Varrio Cypress, enjoined this week, and the judge approved the petition. This now means that anyone the Orange PD, in accordance with the DA's office, believes is an active gang member, may be served the final injunction order naming the entire gang and can be held to the terms of the injunction, which imposes strict, probation-like rules within a four mile radius in Orange. The difference, Anderson says, is that the burden will always be on the DA's office to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt that someone they are prosecuting is an active gang member.