Citing the shooting of a 17-year-old boy killed shortly before Christmas, the Orange County District Attorney’s office Thursday sought an emergency court ruling to enforce a gang injunction against ten people who are fighting their inclusion in the action targeting the Townsend Street gang.
Deputy District Attorney Susan J. Eckermann argued in a motion filed this week with the Orange County Superior Court that the shooting of Angel Arellano in Santa Ana is chief among many reasons why a permanent gang injunction should be enforced against those individuals.
After receiving the motion Thursday, Orange County Superior Court Judge Franz E. Miller postponed arguments on the matter until a hearing next Wednesday to allow defense attorneys to prepare their responses.
The DA also cited Arellano’s death in a press release issued last Friday that stated that the recently-approved permanent injunction was in response to “decades of violent crimes committed by this gang and numerous residents pleading with law enforcement to eliminate the gang presence so that they no longer have to live in fear.”
Attorneys for the individuals contesting the injunction say the DA's office is exploiting Arellano's death to win its case and that prosecutors have no direct evidence that the incident was gang related.
The injunction against the Townsend Street gang sought by District Attorney Tony Rackauckas restricts the otherwise legal, everyday activities of the gang’s members in a .39-square-mile area dubbed a “safety zone,” that is bordered by McFadden Avenue, and Raitt, Sullivan and First streets.
Those enjoined would be prohibited, for example, from associating with gang members in public spaces within the safety zone, with the exception of certain spaces such as schools or churches.
Last week, Miller issued a default judgment that established the permanent injunction against the gang and known gang members who did not appear in court to respond to the DA's suit requesting the action. However, despite the judgment, the injunction is not enforceable against those who are challenging the DA’s allegations that they are active participants in the gang.
This is because in August, Miller issued a stay to allow these minors and adults their due process rights. It’s this stay that the Eckermann sought to remove on Thursday via an ex-parte motion that is typically filed in response to an urgent or pressing matter.
In her motion, Eckermann cited ongoing criminal and nuisance activity in the safety zone, as well as an invitation from Miller to resubmit her motion, as the reason for filing the request for the stay.
“This injunction is necessary not only to increase public safety, and protect the law abiding residents of the community, but also to protect the safety of participants of the Defendant criminal street gang,” the motion states.
Defense attorney Shelly Aronson said Eckermann's claims are largely baseless, with the facts not supporting the dangerous situation the deputy DA describes.
“The district attorney is desperately trying to continually add new incidents to either intimidate the judge or convince the judge that this is more pressing and more serious, and that the motion should be granted and the stay should be lifted,” said Aronson, who represents Ulaio Mendoza, an individual challenging both the gang injunction and his inclusion as an alleged active participant in the gang.
In November, Miller denied a similar request from Eckermann, who at the time argued a stay was necessary because violence was escalating in the neighborhood and submitted a series of police declarations to support her claim.
On Thursday, Eckermann went on to say that the DA has “aggressively” sought to set hearings for these 10 individuals, but claimed that with the stay in effect the group has no incentive to litigate the case in a timely manner.
Again, Aronson claims that such statements by Eckermann distort the truth. It has been the DA’s office that has thwarted the efforts of these 10 individuals to challenge the injunction, Aronson said.
“She has denied us the opportunity to meaningfully litigate this injunction, and this continues to be a violation of due process,” said Aronson.
Most concerning to Aronson is that Eckermann’s recent motion includes police declarations for incidents that don’t appear to be gang related nor tied to the Townsend Street gang.
“The additional declarations merely contain incidents that they speculate could possibly involve gang activity with no supporting documentation,” said Aronson. “So we’re fighting this.”
So far, according to Aronson, all of the police declarations submitted as part of the civil lawsuit have not included complete police reports, despite the defense attorneys’ repeated requests for evidence that presents a complete picture of incidents allegedly involving the gang.
Regarding Arellano's death, the DA alleged in its civil lawsuit that he was an active participant in the Townsend Street gang, but Arellano was part of the group contesting this.
“They have not offered one bit of evidence or any police reports that the Townsend Street gang perpetrated or caused or was involved in any confrontation that resulted in Angel’s death,” said Aronson.
Since his death, Arellano’s mother, Rosie Iraheta, has been increasingly vocal in her opposition to the gang injunction, and found it particularly offensive that the DA’s office would use her son’s killing as the rationale to lift the stay against those individuals still fighting the lawsuit.
“I feel like they’re trying to use Angel’s name to push their agenda, to push the gang injunction. But no. This is my son’s life here,” said Iraheta, a Costa Mesa resident. “…I want my son to rest in peace. I don’t want his name thrown around for their purposes, for their agenda.”
Iraheta has been part of mounting community resistance to the Townsend gang injunction since residents discovered in the fall of 2013 that the Santa Ana Police Department intended to seek an injunction in the Townsend Street neighborhood.
In last Friday’s press release, Rackauckas stated that “gang injunctions work to reduce crime.” And, during his swearing in ceremony this week, said violent crime in the county's injunction zones "fell by up to 65 percent after the injunctions were put in place."
Many law enforcement agencies have touted injunctions as being an effective tool to battle gangs.
“They have been shown to undermine a gang’s ability to commit crime, to intimidate others, and to diminish the quality of life for residents of a community,” stated a 2009 report on gang injunctions by the Los Angeles City Attorney.
But most academic gang injunction experts dispute law enforcement claims about the effectiveness of these restraining orders.
UC Berkeley criminologist Barry Krisberg said that the general academic research has found that gang injunctions have no impact on violent crime. Only a few studies have found an impact on property crimes such as car thefts or burglaries, said Krisberg, an expert in juvenile justice.
“Generally speaking they have very limited and almost no real impact on a crime problem, said Krisberg, a senior fellow at UC Berkeley’s school of law.
“There’s no lasting effect, and in some cases there is no effect. No credible (academic) gang expert that I know of supports gang injunctions.”
Krisberg pointed out that police already have tools such as probation and parole violations to monitor and control the activities of convicted gang members.
“If we really want to prosecute gangs we should prosecute gangs with the criminal justice system or even more importantly invest in prevention or intervention,” said Krisberg.
“I think gang injunctions are going to go the way of the dodo bird because as more enlightened and progressive prosecutors talk about being smart on crime, gang injunctions have no role in a smart-on-crime approach.”
Yvette Cabrera is a long-time Orange County journalist and Voice of OC contributing writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org