A Superior Court judge has ruled that Los Angeles city officials can seek to recover $5 million from a street gang that has long held a monopoly on the downtown heroin trade, officials announced Tuesday.
The civil judgment was sought by City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, who called it a new front in the fight against gangs.
It was the first such judgment since a 2007 state law was passed allowing county and city prosecutors to go after a gang’s ill-gotten assets.
That law was further amended last year, enabling prosecutors to go after gang leaders’ personal assets, regardless of whether they were tied to illegal activity.
How much of the money Delgadillo’s office will be able to collect remains to be seen.
The city attorney said his office would go after cash, homes, cars and businesses -- such as tattoo parlors -- owned by leaders of the 5th and Hill gang.
Last week’s judgment in Los Angeles County Superior Court names 11 of the gang’s members, who will be held liable for the damages.
The city won the case against the gang members after they failed to respond to the city’s lawsuit.
Of the 13 named in the original lawsuit, one was deported and another is still fighting the case in court, officials said.
Once the penalties are collected, a fund will be set up for the downtown community affected by the gang and will be used to undo the damage from its operations, the city attorney said.
“This is a whole new front that we’re waging against these gang members,” Delgadillo said, adding that his office may seek civil penalties for the cost of homicides in future cases. “It’s new to them, it’s new to us, but it feels like we’re winning.”
Experts, however, were less optimistic about how much the civil judgment would hurt gang activity.
Lawrence Rosenthal, a former federal prosecutor who worked on anti-gang efforts in Chicago, said he was skeptical that the city would be able to collect on the judgment.
Gang members and drug dealers, in particular, take many precautions to keep few assets in their name, he said.
“Usually you spend more time and money getting the judgment than it is actually worth,” said Rosenthal, a professor of law at Chapman University in Orange. “They’re such a political currency, fighting gangs, that public officials are always wanting to get a part of the action.”
But the lower standard of proof in civil court may make the legal maneuver a useful tool against gangs, said Wes McBride, executive director of the California Gang Investigator’s Assn. and a former gang investigator with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
“Anything you can do to mess with them, to make their criminal life uncomfortable, is a smart idea,” he said.
Delgadillo called the $5-million figure a “very conservative” estimate for the last 20 years of the gang’s impact on the downtown area it claimed as territory -- most of it is for graffiti removal and security personnel costs.
The 5th and Hill gang was the target of a major crackdown by the Los Angeles Police Department in 2007.
According to detectives, the leaders produced heroin balloons at their homes and had middlemen deliver them to downtown L.A.
Authorities said day laborers, homeless people and even children as young as 12 helped peddle the heroin along the bus routes in the areas surrounding Pershing Square.
At the time, the LAPD said it had dismantled what was the main source of heroin in Los Angeles using video surveillance tapes that tracked the movement of drugs in and out of downtown.
The judgment also contains an injunction against the gang’s activities downtown.
The city attorney’s office also filed a similar lawsuit last month against the 18th Street gang, alleging that the gang’s leaders profited from illegal “street taxes” even while in prison.