Wyandanch police and Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy are pushing for a judge to allow a civil gang injunction in an effort to reduce violence and criminal activity. The injunction is basically a civil order that says known gang members are not allowed to meet or even speak to one another in a defined area. These “safety zones”, though questionable, have been growing across the country.
Critics say gang injunctions violate the rights of the people they name. The suspected gang members’ rights to assemble and freedom of speech are stepped on in the name of curbing potential crime.
So what’s required for a gang injunction safety zone? The police must simply show they have a geographical area that is troubled by gang activity and they must provide a list of gang members to which the injunction will apply.
The New York Civil Liberties Union is challenging the injunction but things don’t look good for the organization. According to NPR, one journal cited 122 known attempts at injunctions nationwide in recent years. Of these 122 attempts, only 3 were denied.
Prosecutors love these safety zones because they make things much easier for them. In criminal court, you must prove something “beyond a reasonable doubt” in order for it to be affirmed. In civil court, you merely have to show by a “preponderance of evidence” that someone is a gang member. This is a fancy way of saying the evidence shows it is more likely than not to be true.
By naming someone on a civil gang injunction, then law enforcement merely has to find them in the area named and arrest them. Violating the injunction turns things into a New York State criminal offense, where the offender can be charged with a misdemeanor and sentenced up to one year in jail.
One of many problems with these orders is that police and prosecutors aren’t always hip to who is in what gang and if someone is actually a gang member or merely knows gang members because of their community. One man, identified on the Wyandanch proposed injunction says he is not nor has ever been a gang member. He shows off his lack of gang tattoos here and says “If I was Blood, I would say I was Blood.”
“Basically what you have is enforcement at a heightened level—at a lower level of suspicion—in predominantly minority neighborhoods,” says Columbia University Law School professor Jeffrey Fagan, who specializes in policing strategies and says there is little evidence that such injunctions reduce crime.
The judge hearing the case for the injunctions suggests those named as gang members get a lawyer if they expect to be removed.