A judge on Wednesday extended a restraining order that bans 56 young men from associating with one another in their Westminster neighborhood, temporarily sustaining Orange County's most aggressive anti-gang tactic.
At a hearing in Orange County Superior Court, Judge Richard J. Beacom postponed until Aug. 30 arguments over the constitutionality of the city's latest effort to combat gangs. The postponement will also give the American Civil Liberties Union and Westminster city officials time to file papers in connection with the case and the court time to determine if the defendants are too poor to afford attorneys.
Westminster's court order declares the West Trece gang a public nuisance and bars 56 young men thought to be active members from "standing, sitting, walking, driving, gathering or appearing anywhere in public view" in the neighborhood bounded by Golden West and Hoover streets, Trask Avenue and Westminster Boulevard.
Violating the order could lead to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Several defendants said Wednesday that some of those listed in the restraining order are not members of the gang and have not committed any crime.
In court Wednesday, ACLU attorney Mark Silverstein promised to argue against the restraining order as a friend of the court, but contended that each defendant needs a separate lawyer because of the complexity of the case and because the individuals' interests may conflict.
Silverstein said one lawyer cannot properly represent the group because the order hinges on an account of 39 crimes in the neighborhood and because some defendants were identified as gang members by other defendants.
Each of the 18 defendants who appeared in court Wednesday told Beacom that he wanted a lawyer but could not afford one. One by one, the judge asked the young men--most dressed in baggy pants and T-shirts--their age, whether they were employed, and what they wanted to do about legal counsel.
"Why? What do I need one for?" one defendant, Carlos Antonio Amaya, asked before deciding a lawyer would be a good idea. "I didn't do anything."
Without ruling on their request, Beacom indicated that the defendants probably have the right to attorneys and said that he doubted the county could afford to cover their legal fees.
If the judge determines that the defendants need lawyers and cannot pay for them, and the county refuses to provide the attorneys, it would be up to the city of Westminster, which initiated the action, to pay for attorneys. But Westminster Deputy City Atty. Costas A. Ladikos said the city had not budgeted for a large team of lawyers and would probably not provide them.
After the hearing, City Atty. Richard Jones said that the city finds "absolutely no reason for" the defendants to have individual attorneys.
Beacom also asked Ladikos to provide a detailed criminal record on each of the 56 people named in the order, and to explain how each one was identified as a member of the gang. The judge also requested a breakdown of all crimes that occurred in the neighborhood in question.
After the two-hour hearing, several defendants left the courtroom confused about what had happened and angry that they would still be unable to hang out together in their neighborhood.
"We're just a group of people that was born and raised there. They can't get us for that," said Oscar Saldana, 30, a father of four who is named in the restraining order. "The gang does exist, but they're just putting it on everybody, blaming anyone they see. We're guilty until proven innocent. It's wrong."
Saldana and other defendants said that many of the 56 defendants--four names were dropped and three others added since the original order was filed--have no connection to the West Trece, except that they live nearby and sometimes visit a park in the neighborhood.