The Los Angeles Police Department has violated the due process rights of thousands of city residents by serving them with gang injunctions without first allowing them to challenge those orders in court, according to a federal lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The suit, filed in federal court Tuesday, seeks to stop the department from enforcing injunctions against people who have not been given a chance to show they aren't gang members.
The city is currently enforcing 46 separate injunctions against approximately 10,000 people in Los Angeles, according to the lawsuit. The enforcement areas combined make up 75 square miles, or 15% of the city, according to the suit.
"They're basically subject to parole-like restrictions without any hearing on whether or not they are actually a gang member," said Peter Bibring, director of police practices for the ACLU of Southern California. "That violates any notion of due process."
Spokesmen for the LAPD and the city attorney's office declined to comment on the lawsuit.
The city has used the injunctions as a tool to stifle gang crime since the late 1980s, when Los Angeles gained infamy as a breeding ground for street gangs that would go on to gain national notoriety. The injunctions are civil court orders that bar suspected gang members from engaging in certain activities in areas where the gang is known to congregate, which the city terms "safety zones." People subject to injunctions are generally barred from wearing clothing that police believe highlights gang affiliation within the safety zones, and from socializing with other alleged gang members in public, including family members.
Those who violate injunctions can be charged with contempt and face up to six months in jail. About 79 gangs are subject to injunctions, according to the city attorney's office, accounting for approximately 20% of Los Angeles' known gang population.
Gang activity has waned across Los Angeles in conjunction with declines in other kinds of violent crime over the last decade. City officials have often credited the injunctions as playing a role in the crime decline, but critics often contend a large swath of people subject to injunctions are not affiliated with any kind of criminal organization.
The ACLU lawsuit does not question the effectiveness of the injunctions, but it does harshly criticize the way the city obtains them. City officials rarely name individual gang members as defendants when they seek to obtain an injunction, instead choosing to name the gang itself, according to the ACLU lawsuit. This creates a situation in which the city typically wins the orders during an uncontested court proceeding, the lawsuit alleges.
Once the order is obtained, city and police officials can serve injunctions against anyone they suspect to be a member of the gang in question. Until 2007, LAPD officers made those distinctions on their own. Since then, officers need to obtain the approval of a deputy city attorney before serving an injunction. Either way, the ACLU contends, police and city prosecutors don't have to meet any reasonable burden of proof to serve an injunction.
In its suit, the ACLU is asking the court to bar the LAPD from enforcing injunctions unless the department can prove that a person subject to an injunction is actually a gang member. The city attorney's office established an administrative process in 2007 that allows those who believe they have been wrongly labeled as gang members to seek to vacate the orders, but the ACLU suit claims that process is "painstakingly slow" and relies on criteria that have nothing to do with a person's active gang status.
A person seeking to be removed from an injunction can be denied if they fail to maintain employment or if they are arrested for any misdemeanor crime. Neither of those criteria proves gang affiliation, the ACLU argues.
"The criteria are incredibly burdensome and very restrictive and absolutely not all related to whether or not you are an active participant in a gang," said Carmen Iguina, an ACLU staff attorney. "Even people that fit the criteria perfectly, it can take them over a year."
Peter Arellano, 21, said he has never been involved with a gang, but the Echo Park native and his father were both served with injunctions aimed at curbing the activities of six street gangs in 2013. As a result of the court order, Arellano can't even go out to dinner with several of his relatives without risking arrest.
"It's pretty cruel. I don't see how the LAPD can enforce the law saying that you can't be with your family," he said. "I think it's like inhumane. It's like when a dog has puppies, and you take the puppies away from the dog. It's just sad."
The lawsuit marks the latest challenge to tactics used by the LAPD and other California law enforcement agencies to track gang activity. An appellate court found Orange County law enforcement agencies had violated some residents' due process rights in a similar case in 2013, and the Los Angeles City Council agreed to pay $30 million to fund job training for alleged gang members this year to settle a lawsuit stemming from allegations that the curfew provision of previous LAPD gang injunctions was unlawful.
An audit of a state law enforcement gang database in August also showed that many people had been erroneously entered into the system as documented gang members. The study focused on information provided by four separate agencies, including the LAPD.
Iguina said the recent lawsuits and audits show how police attempts to stymie gang crime often cast too wide a net.
"It's basically part of the follow-through of a lot of the war-on-gangs, war-on-drugs tactics that were really historically overbroad policies," she said. "When you're talking about gang injunction policies in particular, you're talking about entire communities being affected."
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5:55 p.m.: This article was updated with spokesmen for the LAPD and city attorney's office declining to comment on the lawsuit.