D.A. accused of inflating the charges in gang cases
As the city’s war on street gangs continues to unfold, Los Angeles defense attorneys are protesting what they see as overzealous prosecutions that seek enhanced jail time for suspects swept up by police for nonviolent crime.
Cases that might have been charged as misdemeanors are being filed as felonies with enhancements that increase penalties and put bail out of reach, defense lawyers say.
In some cases, judges have agreed, rebuking prosecutors by throwing out excessive charges against alleged gang members.
Robert Kalunian, chief deputy public defender for Los Angeles County, said defense attorneys are seeing a lot of aggressive prosecutions for relatively minor crimes such as vandalism and petty theft because the suspect is an alleged gang member.
“There are a lot of problems with enhanced prosecution of gang members,” Kalunian said. “We are spending a considerable amount of resources on cases that are not the crime of the century.”
Kalunian said that, anecdotally, it seems there are more cases with gang enhancements landing on the desks of public defenders, but that might be a function of hundreds of additional gang members being arrested in the crackdown.
Prosecutors say they are not handling gang cases any differently, but are simply enforcing existing laws that recognize the sinister grip that gang crime can have on a community.
“The Legislature has given district attorneys around California appropriate tools to fight the scourge of gangs,” said Jane Robison, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office. “That includes filing gang enhancements for crimes that are both violent and nonviolent.”
Lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California say they are watching with interest.
“Overcharging is counterproductive,” ACLU attorney Peter Bibring said. “When one community’s kids are going to jail for extended periods of time, while another community’s kids are getting probation or time served for the same crimes, its hard for the community to see law enforcement as an ally.”
Police Chief William J. Bratton announced a crackdown on gangs in January in response to a 15.7% increase in gang crime last year in Los Angeles. Fifty-six percent of the 478 homicides in 2006 were gang-related.
Since then, gang enforcement officers have made more than 800 arrests, including 392 members of 11 gangs identified by the chief as the worst in the city.
However, many of those arrests have been for nonviolent crimes, including probation violation, drug possession, curfew violation and vandalism.
By using laws that allow longer jail and prison sentences if nonviolent crimes are committed to benefit a gang, police and prosecutors are keeping alleged gang members off the streets longer.
Kalunian questioned the pressure on nonviolent offenders.
“That’s always a danger when there is a politically hot crime, particularly on something as amorphous as gang prosecution,” Kalunian said. “The focus ought to be on serious violent offenses.”
He said it appears that police put youths’ names into a gang database just because they dress in baggy pants and were seen talking to an alleged gang member, though the police say additional corroboration is required.
Those young people, if sent to prison, could be forced to become hard-core gang members to survive behind bars, Kalunian said.
James Pinchak is a defense attorney representing Reyes Hochman, an 18-year-old alleged member of the Brown Pride Surenos gang in the north San Fernando Valley.
Hochman was dressed in baggy pants and waiting at a bus stop in Van Nuys last month with another man when police allegedly confronted them and asked if they were on probation.
When both answered that they were on probation, police searched the other man and allegedly found 4 grams of methamphetamine, Pinchak said.
When police searched Hochman’s house, officers allegedly found less than 1 gram of methamphetamine, Pinchak said.
Nevertheless, Hochman was charged with possession for sale, plus an enhancement based on the alleged gang involvement.
That upgraded charge could have resulted in additional years in prison, his attorney said.
But, during a preliminary hearing March 13, the judge threw out the possession for sale charge and gang enhancement, leaving Hochman facing a probation violation for simple possession.
Robison defended that prosecution.
“We charged both for selling to further a gang, and the judge found enough evidence on one and insufficient evidence on the other,” Robison said. “We are charging what’s appropriate when we feel the crime is to further a gang.”
But Pinchak said his client was overcharged.
“Nobody expects the police or prosecutors to go easy on crime or gangs, but there is a point where there is an abuse of power and discretion, where it’s not fair,” Pinchak said.
The gang crackdown also resulted in the arrest two weeks ago of Edgar Ramirez, 20, and Pedro Rodriguez, 21, who allegedly sprayed graffiti on four apartment buildings glorifying the Canoga Park Alabama gang.
The two could have faced misdemeanor charges with low or no bail, a defense lawyer said.
But, Deputy Dist. Atty. Bill Ryder filed four felony vandalism charges with gang enhancements against each man, bumping their bail to $200,000 and above.
State law allows an enhancement to the charge if the vandalism was done to benefit a street gang, and Ryder decided to file enhanced charges against the two that could get them nine years in prison.
The prosecutor defended the filing, noting that the graffiti included the number 13, which is seen as representing the Mexican Mafia.
“The neighborhood is terrorized by these people,” he said.
“Everybody is concerned about gangs,” said James Bendat, the public defender assigned to Rodriguez, who reportedly was acting only as a lookout.
“But sometimes you have a situation where the district attorney files charges to make the public happy, but that are not necessarily going to do the right thing for these young people.”