For more than a decade, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas filed gang injunctions over swaths of Mexican OC with few troubles in court. Even after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals deemed the OCDA’s gang injunction against Orange Varrio Cypress in Orange violated due process rights in a 2011 ruling, the agency pushed forward, introducing new ones in Anaheim and SanTana. The OCDA even filed a pair of injunctions against two rival Placentia street gangs at the same time in 2015, a first for any OC city. But also in an unprecedented move, they sought to withdraw those same preliminary injunctions in court yesterday.
In picking on Placentia, Rackauckas messed with the wrong barrios–but people wouldn’t know it from yesterday’s announcement. “Through our law enforcement partnership, we were able to seek safety for the Placentia community,” Rackauckas triumphantly declared. “The OCDA asked to dismiss these two injunctions today because we achieved what we were seeking, which was to dismantle the activities of these gangs.”
The agency revived its old arguments for the filings in the first place, claiming the enjoined turfs claimed by the Plas and La Jolla street gangs accounted for four murders, 22 assaults and nine robberies, among other crimes, between January 2010 and July 2015. Since the injunction, there’s been no robberies, no drive-by shootings, no assaults with a deadly weapon and only one attempted murder between December 2016 and December 2017.
But with sample statistics from just one year and an “undue delay” dismissal looming in court, people who organized against the injunction from the get-go aren’t buying T-Rack’s spiel. “The communities of Placentia and La Jolla came together along with organizations and a church to fight the gang injunctions because what the communities were being accused of were not true,” says Theresa Smith, a former Placentia resident who heads the Law Enforcement Accountability Network (LEAN). “Most families have deep-rooted histories in these communities and their complaints were of not having any resources, especially for the youth. Community centers were shut down so after school programs were no longer available.”
Residents gathered for meetings at nearby Cal State Fullerton and later at Placentia’s Well of Life Church to push back against T-Rack. At first, the barrios kept to themselves, but later congealed while fighting a common cause in the same room. Organizations like LEAN, Chicanos Unidos, the Youth Justice Coalition, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and the Urban Peace Institute helped them organize against the injunctions. They spoke out at city council meetings, pointing to already relatively low crime statistics in saying the gang injunctions weren’t needed. Residents also followed the case into Orange County Superior Court, turning out for hearings and helping to arrange legal representation for alleged gang members.
“What is remarkable about the case is that the judge asked the district attorney’s office to show what public benefit would be had by enjoining specific individuals,” says Sean Garcia-Leys, a staff attorney at the Urban Peace Institute. “In two years, they were unable to find a single person who they could enjoin and show that the public would be safer by it. It’s unsurprising that lawsuit was dismissed.”
The OCDA tried, naming some 50 alleged members between the two gangs in the injunctions. With the help of attorneys like Garcia-Leys, many of the accused asserted their rights to “active participation” hearings where affiliations had to be proved. In the past, the OCDA sued street gangs and gained permanent injunctions by default with ease when no one showed up at court to represent them. Now, after the Ninth Circuit ruling in Vasquez v. Rackauckas, the process isn’t quite so easy.
“When the OCDA first moved to have the gang injunctions, community organizers were able to turn out all but three people who weren’t in jail or prison at the time,” says Garcia-Leys. “Two wrote letters and were removed from the preliminary injunction later.”
The gear shifts of Rackauckas’ gang injunction machine slowed to a halt in Placentia. The agency hasn’t filed for any new injunctions in OC since. “We’re a very small community,” says Smith. “These two barrios literally came together despite efforts to pit them against each other. Instead of separating the two communities, it brought them together as one Placentia to make sure this didn’t happen.”