Last week, Judge Colleen Sterne displayed genuine courage and wisdom when she rejected the City of Santa Barbara’s gang injunction. This highly controversial and contested measure had been proposed and supported by District Attorney Joyce Dudley, Police Chief Cam Sanchez, Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider, and the majority of the City Council. The injunction named 11 alleged gang members who would have been prohibited from engaging in a host of constitutionally protected behaviors, chief among them the right to associate, in this case with other alleged gang members. The City Council voted to approve the injunction behind closed doors in March 2011. Since then, a wide array of community groups, from the S.B. Association of Realtors Board of Directors to PODER, voiced their opposition. A team of attorneys challenged the injunction in court. The whole process cost well over a million dollars, not to mention gratuitous civic alienation and acrimony — none of which the city was in short supply of before this misconceived idea was proposed. Three years later, it finally reached the courtroom of Judge Sterne.
We were much impressed during the course of the trial by the gravity and intent with which Judge Sterne weighed the evidence presented by both sides. In the end, she concluded that yes, gangs do constitute a serious law enforcement concern but that the extraordinary legal powers given to law enforcement in the form of this injunction were justified neither by Santa Barbara’s level of gang activity nor, for that matter, by the law. The police, Sterne noted, have done an excellent job responding to gangs by availing themselves of the numerous legal tools already at hand. Santa Barbara’s citizenry, she concluded, were not quivering in their homes, afraid to go outside, as is the case in other cities with more serious gang problems. It’s worth noting that Santa Barbara remains the only city in the United States where a judge has rejected a petition for such an injunction.
Sterne is not the only one to thank for this sensible outcome. While many attorneys participated in the legal effort to challenge the injunction, Tara Haaland-Ford and Stephen Dunkle were in the trenches from the outset, and their thankless determination and tenacity proved critical. Elected officials Cathy Murillo and Gregg Hart also were actively opposed.
It’s well worth remembering that the proposed injunction was never afforded the same public review that even the most minor tree-trimming ordinance must endure in Santa Barbara. City officials have countered that court actions are not typically subject to public hearings in the City Council. While technically true, that argument has always been way too clever for its own good, and the council’s credibility has suffered accordingly. Thanks to Judge Sterne and the team of attorneys fighting the injunction, Santa Barbara has the opportunity for a fresh start. Let’s hope the knuckleheads don’t do anything stupid this Fiesta.