Santa Barbara Judge Colleen Sterne denied any attorneys’ fees to the team of lawyers who successfully beat back a four-year effort by the District Attorney and Santa Barbara City Hall to secure a gang injunction in the City of Santa Barbara. Sterne, who ruled against the gang injunction after a month-long trial, said her verdict did not confer a benefit on a large enough class of persons to justify the award of attorneys’ fees to the prevailing party. “The court’s focus was on the community at large, not those who would be subject to the injunction,” Sterne ruled. “While not insignificant, these issues alone are not questions of great societal importance.”
Sterne acknowledged the existence of criminal street gangs, but she ruled that their conduct constitutes a public nuisance that could not be adequately remedied via traditional law-enforcement methods. Initially, the prosecution named 30 alleged gang members in the proposed injunction. By the time trial started this spring, that number had been reduced to 11. Of those 11, one was ruled not to be an active gang member any longer.
Attorney William Makler sought to persuade Sterne that the multiple constitutional rights — travel, expression, and assembly — that would have been abridged by anyone named over the life of the injunction, plus their families, benefited. Given that law enforcement acknowledged the injunction would be used on other known gang members, Makler argued this number was far greater than 11 or 30 and could easily have exceeded 100. Had he, Tara Haaland-Ford, Steve Dunkle, James Crowder, and Neil Levinson not intervened and worked on behalf of clients without the resources to otherwise afford attorneys, Makler argued, the injunction would have not been opposed.
Attorneys’ fees are awarded so that private attorneys have incentive to take cases of significant public controversy and benefit. Makler intimated he was considering an appeal. Tom Shapiro, who argued for the injunction on behalf of City Hall, countered that Sterne’s ruling did not result in the preservation of any important public rights. “Simply put,” Shapiro argued, “there is no right to create or maintain a nuisance.”