There was a conspicuous dearth of legal fireworks or rhetorical pyrotechnics during the first courtroom “clash” over the City of Santa Barbara’s proposed gang injunction, first unveiled several months ago. So muted and opaque were the issues on the table that observers who did not know what was going on would have been none the wiser for having been in attendance. (To the extent there was any drama, it came in the form of the unusually thorough searches of those attending the proceedings. Bags were rifled, wallets opened, and even socks were checked. Given that a number of those in attendance sported large gang tattoos and dressed in attire associated with gang members, such security precautions were to be expected.)
Most of the discussion was of a highly procedural nature, as Judge James Brown explained his game plan for dealing with could easily become a somewhat unwieldy logistical challenge given the number of individuals — 30 — involved. While the legal matters are relatively straightforward, Brown said, the numbers and some of the evidentiary concerns could put the case on par with a class action lawsuit or a construction defect case.
The big issue not under discussion was what role information gleaned from juvenile records would and could play in making the case that 30 adult gang members, deemed “the baddest of the bad” by Santa Barbara police and prosecutors, should have their legal right to congregate where and with whom they please seriously curtailed. Five defense attorneys — representing roughly half the alleged gang members named in the injunction complaint — filed legal action, challenging the validity of City Hall’s claims, arguing that much of the supporting documentation provided came from juvenile court records.
By law, juvenile records are off limits. City Attorney Steve Wiley commented during a brief courtroom conversation that city police files — separate and independent of anything that might be in juvenile court records — contain a bounty of incriminatory information about the individuals named in the motion for injunctive relief. He expressed confidence that the gang injunction could survive this legal challenge. Judge Brown declined to rule on the merits of the defense claims, but rather has given Wiley — as well prosecutor Hilary Dozer — an opportunity to amend their initial complaints to demonstrate that they did not rely upon information from juvenile court files. Because juvenile records are not public, Brown’s ruling on the matter was not posted on the court tentative ruling Web site, but rather delivered personally to the defense attorneys representing those alleged gang members who’ve been able to obtain legal representation.
While much of the activity that’s given rise to the proposed injunction is criminal in nature, a gang injunction itself is a civil, not criminal, matter. That distinction is significant because individuals named in civil matters do not have the right to legal counsel if they can’t afford an attorney of their own and the court will not appoint one. In fact, Judge Brown has already rejected such a request for appointment by one of the alleged gang members named in the city’s injunction. Even so, many of those named in the injunction have managed to secure legal representation from a handful of some of the best-known criminal defense attorneys in town. What kind of payments, if any, those named will be expected to pay is not clear, but at least one of the defense attorneys took on her client for free. The defense, in addition to arguing that the injunction is simply too broad, will attempt to prove many of their clients, to the extent they were gang members, have moved away from that lifestyle and are now leading law-abiding lives.
The proposed injunction was announced earlier this year, not long after a number of well-publicized killings that involved gang members either stabbing or beating to death non-gang members. Prior to that, Santa Barbara Police Chief Cam Sanchez had resisted mounting political pressure to initiate an injunction. Injunctions remain extremely controversial. From a practical consideration, they’re labor intensive to administer and enforce and few have been crafted with such precision and sensitivity that civil libertarians have not objected. One thing’s for certain: whatever tactical advantage — and political benefit — might accrue from Santa Barbara’s proposal won’t be materializing anytime soon. And certainly not this summer. Wiley said the soonest the city could apply for a preliminary injunction is late September or early October. Four people named in the injunction have filed for opt-out requests, explained Wiley, arguing they’re no longer gang members. Three of them are in state prison and one is in County Jail.
The next hearing before Judge Brown on the gang injunction has been scheduled for August 31. In the meantime, City Hall and the DA’s office have made it clear they plan to begin pushing for a temporary injunction in the weeks ahead as the permanent injunction slowly wends its way through the civil courts.