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Terror All Too Close to Home : Law enforcement looks for new weapons against gang violence

When gang violence intrudes on the lives of ordinary citizens, the community recoils with outrage, just as it does from a terrorist attack.

A connection in law between gang activity and the menace of terrorism has not gone unnoticed this week by the region’s law enforcement community.

In a commendable attempt to make a convincing statement about reclaiming the streets for law-abiding people, the Orange County district attorney’s office will invoke the state’s Street Terrorism Enforcement and Protection Act of 1989.

This is in its prosecution of a gang-related homicide so disturbing that it shocked even longtime observers of gang warfare in Southern California.

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Janet L. Bicknell, 49, a Westminster playground supervisor, went out on a quick shopping run late last Sunday evening. In driving by a park, she was shot to death by teen-age gang members who police say had resolved to steal the next car that happened along.

Though the Orange County district attorney in the past has used evidence of “street terrorism” at sentencing in an effort to get additional prison time, this case represents the county’s first attempt to employ a different section of the law in its prosecution. The idea is to bring a stronger case against one gang member who otherwise would face only misdemeanor counts.

This relatively new state law is a kind of conspiracy statute designed specially for gangs. The difficulty for prosecutors so far has been in proving that gang members knowingly participated in a pattern of criminal activity. But this dogged work is being done.

Here in Los Angeles, for example, where the language of the state statute was drafted--jointly by the offices of the city attorney and the district attorney--painstaking effort has gone into profiling gangs and putting them legally on notice that they are engaging in criminal activity.

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A recent state report noted some prosecutions under the statute similar to the Westminster case and many examples of the statute being used at sentencing. That’s noteworthy. Let’s hope this statute proves a useful weapon in the campaign against gangs.


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