An Orange County Superior Court judge on Tuesday cleared the way for District Attorney Tony Rackauckas to start presenting evidence this week regarding a group of alleged gang members as he seeks a permanent injunction against the Townsend Street gang in central Santa Ana.
Judge Franz E. Miller ruled that only four individuals challenging their inclusion in the current temporary injunction could litigate the validity and constitutionality of a permanent injunction. This will happen at an upcoming trial where the DA’s office must clearly prove that Townsend is a criminal street gang and its activities rise to the level of a public nuisance.
Miller agreed with Deputy District Attorney Susan J. Eckermann who argued that nine other individuals challenging their inclusion in the lawsuit are only entitled to hearings where the DA must prove their active participation in the gang. The first of these hearings is set to begin on Thursday morning in Miller’s courtroom for one of the minors listed in the civil lawsuit.
“They will have their day in court on their active participation or not. They do not have the right to prove the existence of the gang or nuisance,” said Miller.
The decision comes after months of wrangling between the DA’s office and defense attorneys representing more than a dozen of these named individuals, four of whom sought and won the right last month to intervene in the lawsuit. This provides them with certain rights such as the ability to subpoena and depose witnesses.
By allowing these four “intervenors” to join the lawsuit, Miller acknowledged on Tuesday that they’d be able challenge the gang injunction itself at trial in addition to contesting their inclusion in the complaint.
A gang injunction is a restraining order that restricts the otherwise legal, everyday activities of the gang’s members in what prosecutors often dub a “safety zone,” in this case a .39-square-mile area in the Townsend Street neighborhood 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. The order also prohibits gang members from acting as lookouts, trespassing, fighting, blocking free passage or intimidating anyone in public.
In August, Miller approved the preliminary injunction against the Townsend Street gang, but ruled that the injunction could not be enforced against 14 who contested their inclusion in the injunction, until they have their day in court.
One of those, 17-year-old Angel Arellano, died of multiple gunshot wounds on Dec. 24 in an incident that Santa Ana police are still investigating.
The police and DA’s office claim in a press release that Arellano and alleged fellow gang members were “armed and looking for rival gang members” in the injunction’s safety zone shortly before the shooting occurred, but Arellano’s family attended the court hearing Tuesday to refute this allegation.
“It wasn’t even close to what they say… They’re pulling things out of thin air. It was non gang related, absolutely,” said Giovanny Hernandez, who is Arellano’s uncle.
Hernandez believes the incident was likely rooted in a wrong look between two teenagers, but was not tied to any gangs in the Townsend neighborhood.
Hernandez, along with Arellano’s mother Rosie Iraheta and other family members also showed up on Tuesday to publicly express their opposition to any use of Arellano’s death in the upcoming trial and hearings.
“I’m here because my son still lives in me and I’m attending these hearings because if he was still here I’d be here too; I’d be against the gang injunction,” said Iraheta, who is battling terminal breast cancer and has attended every hearing despite health issues. “The gang injunction was being imposed on my son, not on the person who killed him, so how would that (injunction) have saved my son’s life.”
No one has stepped forward to respond on behalf of the gang itself. Tuesday, Miller said that he would likely rule no later than Thursday whether a default judgment should be issued against the gang, thus allowing police to enforce the injunction against gang members who have been served notice and have not responded in court to the civil lawsuit. It would not enforceable against those who are contesting the gang injunction.
Eckermann emphasized, as she has during previous hearings, that her team was ready to proceed immediately by presenting the DA’s case against the nine adults and minors who did not intervene.
She also asked the court to enforce the preliminary injunction against three people who had not filed responses since the inception of the case.
Defense attorney Shelly Aronson took issue with this and spoke up on behalf of one young man, Armando Lopez Jr., whom she’s not representing. She explained to Miller that Lopez, 22, had consistently shown up in court, appeared at a recent deposition, and despite not being able to connect with his attorney, was committed to challenging his inclusion in the injunction.
Eckermann disagreed and told the court that Lopez’s attorney had made repeated attempts to contact his client, but was unsuccessful.
“He [Lopez] has done absolutely nothing other than follow the herd into court,” Eckermann told Miller, referring to the individuals contesting the injunction.
Aronson disagreed with Eckermann’s characterization and pointed out that Lopez had responded to his attorney’s calls and should not be penalized for his attorney’s failure to appear in court. After a back and forth exchange between the two attorneys, Miller agreed with Aronson.
The judge noted that there was “enough evidence” of Lopez’s willing to participate and said he would not lift the stay against Lopez, but would enforce the preliminary injunction against the two other individuals.
Various hearings are scheduled in the coming weeks where the DA must prove that these alleged gang members are active participants. On Friday, Miller has set a separate trial setting conference to determine a trial date for the individuals who are also challenging the gang injunction.
Yvette Cabrera is a long-time Orange County journalist and Voice of OC contributing writer.