Stomping on the Constitution: Gang Injunctions

So What’s the Problem?

Harris County is attempting to expand a practice of quietly and quickly putting in place gang injunctions, creating what they call “safety zones” where officers can arrest alleged gang members just for being present in the zone. They do this through civil lawsuits against the alleged gang members by classifying them as a public nuisance. They apply for a temporary injunction for 90 days where they present uncontested “evidence” of gang activity and affiliation. After the 90 days, they easily put in place a permanent injunction, banning people from a certain geographical area. One civil court, the 164th, has been named as the “gang injunction court” to expedite this process. One was set in place in 2010 in Haverstock, most recently resulting in arrests in late March of this year.

Then District Attorney Pat Lykos largely started this practice proclaiming, “The Haverstock Hills neighborhood is a low-income community that has been terrorized by gang members, dope dealers and pimps,” Lykos said. Houston’s Channel 2 News continues to cover more current arrests from Haverstock.

Despite Lykos’ assertions, those affected are generally neither gang members, dope dealers nor pimps.

So Who is Affected?

Currently, the County is attempting to expand this practice to an area the largest of its kind in the country, approximately a 2 square mile area in the box between Old Spanish Trail and 610, and 288 and Cullen. They are calling this section of the third ward the “Southlawn Safety Zone.” They have named over 90 individuals as being alleged gang members of the Bloods and Crips.

The usual practice for such safety zones involves the County filing the lawsuit quickly and obtaining default judgments against defendants before they can fight it. One such prior safety zone was under a bridge. The defendants were all homeless. The homeless defendants did not show, had no attorneys, and the county was awarded a default judgment. Police were then able to legally arrest all homeless people under the bridge and house them in jail for up to a year. Often, a policy is put in place by the District Attorney’s Office to seek a minimum of 300 days in jail for arrests brought for those accused of violating these injunctions.

Upon hearing this, the most common reaction is who are the defendants? Are they really gang members?

Well, bypassing the fact that true gang members actually do still have rights under the Constitution, I can offer a quick insight into the individuals they have pinpointed. From representing about half the named defendants, our team’s best guess as to how they pinpointed these individuals was to walk into the third ward and start pointing to every black male they saw. These men grew up in the community they are claimed to be nuisances to. Most have family, moms, grandmas, wives, and kids who live within the community.

What about their criminal backgrounds? You’d expect heinous crimes with multiple homicides and large quantities of drugs being smuggled the way the county treats them. (Think dope dealers and pimps.) The truth – a few minor trespassing charges (some even which were ultimately dismissed), unlawful carrying of a weapon, or other minor, sometimes even pending, cases. Sure, a few have more serious crimes, but a look at the whole “gang” would not incite fear even into the most sensitive and conservative River Oaks resident.

Are These Really Gangs?

Speaking of the alleged gangs… the police accuse these young men of being in “subsets” of the Bloods and Crips. Even though the large majority of these individuals have never had nor claim to have had any gang affiliation or gang tattoos. Most do not know the gang signs and do not wear the colors of Bloods or Crips. The names of the subsets are akin to juvenile groups for their street name or silly games. Pride for a street, or your junior high group of guys playing pranks, is not the type of gangs one might think when hearing the county’s message. But this is exactly who is being targeted.

And as we “target” these areas, are we making our community safer? Or are we just moving people from one low income area to perhaps another.

What is Being Done Now?

In this case, luckily, a few civil defendants called attorneys when they were served with the lawsuit. The brave attorneys, enraged, gathered support and found as many of the other defendants as possible and offered to represent them for free. From the start, the attorneys realized the county’s system was set up to deny the defendants a chance to defend themselves. The county tried to keep their thrashing of rights quiet by immediately requesting the suit to be sealed, which the court quickly granted. The attorneys were able to successfully get the lawsuit unsealed once the fight commenced.

I want to commend Monique Sparks, Jennifer Gaut, and Shanna Hennigan for recognizing an issue for their clients and putting together a team rounded out by myself, Gemayel Haynes, Brennan Dunn, and U Meka Lewis with support from the PDO through Damon Parrish and Nick Hughes to battle this injustice.

As a defense attorney, and concerned citizen, my foremost thought has been…why? I suppose the county attorney’s office believes they are promoting public safety. If that were true, personally, I’d rather see resources devoted to family restoration, moral character building, fighting addictions, raising education levels, reconciling relationships, and social and emotion learning. Instead of redeeming practices, the county seems to believe banishing individuals across 610 or throwing them in jail longer will somehow heighten public safety. This practice is even thwarting the county’s own attempts of rehabilitation. The probation office is named as a forbidden location. So, if a client is court-ordered to go to probation to help rehabilitate him, the county is now boldly stating they want him to be disallowed from successfully completing his programs.

With actual opposition, the county is facing serious pushback for the first time with these injunctions. Someone is finally there to stand up for Constitutional due process rights including freedom of speech, freedom of travel, freedom of association, freedom of assembly, freedom from unlawful searches and seizures, freedom of religion, and freedom from excessive fines and unlawful takings. Currently, the temporary injunction seems to have at least been minimized, if not dismantled, allowing true preparation to begin for a full trial against the permanent injunction.

As all the attorneys are working pro bono, more help is needed. If you’d like to offer help fighting that the Constitution still means something, please join us. Needs include civil procedure knowledge, community outreach in spreading the message of what is happening, and research. Hopefully we can bring true justice sooner rather than later.

 

*Update: HCCLA files Amicus Brief in opposition of injunction

About Drew Willey

Drew is a new attorney part of the FACT (Future Appointed Counsel Training) program through the Harris County Public Defender’s Office and Gideon’s Promise. He strives for holistic criminal defense, and also practices IRS/tax controversy. Please visit his website at www.Law-DW.com.

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