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Judge Denies Santa Barbara Gang Injunction; Police Chief Ready to ‘Accept It and Move On’

In what the ACLU calls the first successful defense ever of an injunction, the ruling finds the city failed to prove 'unreasonable' gang activity

In the wake of Superior Court Judge Colleen Sterne’s rejection of Santa Barbara's proposed gang injunction, Police Chief Cam Sanchez said Tuesday he wants to “accept it and move on,” and focus on the department’s existing efforts to address gang activity.

Sterne’s 32-page ruling filed Monday recognized the Eastside and Westside as local criminal street gangs, but determined the city didn’t prove that gang activities are a public nuisance requiring injunctive relief.

“In short, Santa Barbara is not a community beset by substantial and unreasonable gang-related interference with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property by an entire community or neighborhood, or any considerable number of persons,” she wrote.

The defense team, made up of local criminal defense attorneys working pro bono, said they are thrilled with the decision, but it’s unclear whether the city will pursue the case further.

“I’m disappointed but respect the judge’s decision,” Sanchez said Tuesday. “I think all of us in public safety, our only goal is to keep everyone safe and use different tools that can help in that regard, and that’s all I was trying to do.”

City Attorney Ariel Calonne also said he is disappointed with the ruling. He is still analyzing the decision and will advise the City Council when he’s finished.

Mayor Helene Schneider said the city will "use every tool available to keep our residents and visitors safe while we consider the impacts and options of Judge Sterne's ruling."

However, Sanchez, who initiated pursing an injunction, said he plans to accept the court's decision.

“I’m proud of the hard work we did,” he said. “No city is immune from violence or gang issues, and I think our job will be to continue to enforce the laws and keep people safe, and provide something that’s not spoken about often enough, which is the great programs for youth we have citywide.”

He added that the Police Department will “stay vigilant” and emphasize the prevention and intervention efforts with local youth.

When the injunction went to a public vote in April, two members of the City Council voted to have Calonne withdraw the case altogether, but they were overruled by the five members who voted to continue to trial.

Ariel Calonne
Santa Barbara City Attorney Ariel Calonne expressed disappointment Tuesday with a judge’s decision to deny the city’s proposed gang injunction, but says he is analyzing the decision and will advise the City Council on his findings. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

The defense team is “delighted” with this week’s ruling, defense attorney Tara Haaland-Ford said.

“I think the judge laid out a well-reasoned opinion, and I think probably even the other side would say we had a good trial, and that she really held both sides to the fire,” she said. “Some of our key arguments are noted in the opinion — the flaws in their data, the lack of people who actually came forward and testified that they were for the injunction, and the over-breadth of the actual safety zones.”

While there are gang issues in Santa Barbara, the defense had argued that they don’t rise to the level of a substantial or unreasonable public nuisance.

“I think our hope is that this ruling will bring the community together so we can move forward to get those people and those kids who are in, or on the edge, to a different path,” Haaland-Ford said.

On Tuesday, the ACLU of Southern California informed the defense team that this is the first successful defense in a gang injunction case — not only in California, but anywhere in the country, she said.

“That’s pretty amazing, given that this was a group of grassroots criminal defense attorneys on their own dime,” she said. “Some of us have been working more than three years on this, then to have a success like this — it’s pretty huge.”

The named defendants can move on now, but Haaland-Ford said they have already been impacted by having their names and photographs broadcasted in local media.

Thirty people were named in the first complaint, but 19 were dismissed from the case before trial.

The City Attorney’s Office, the District Attorney’s Office and the SBPD filed the case in March 2011 and have pursued a permanent injunction ever since.

A three-week trial was held in May, when Sterne heard arguments and evidence from the plaintiffs and defense attorneys, who represented individual clients and made a case against the injunction as a policy. 

The injunction is a restraining order of sorts, limiting the actions of named defendants within the proposed safety zones in the downtown, Eastside and Westside neighborhoods of Santa Barbara.

As Sterne noted in her decision, the crux of the injunction petition is the “no association” clause, which prevents named people from being in public together within the safety zones. Many other provisions are duplicative of gang-related parole and probation conditions.

Sterne didn’t go into detail about the proposed safety zones or provisions of the injunction, since she denied it outright. However, she said the safety zones were not narrowly tailored as required and would have needed to be reconfigured if the injunction was granted.

While the plaintiffs argued that traditional law enforcement methods aren’t effective against nuisance behavior, Sterne determined that law enforcement agencies have adequate remedies available with existing laws.

“The desire for a gang injunction is, in a certain sense, thwarted by the success of SBPD, an agency that has been very diligent in its goal to minimize gang activity,” she wrote.

In response to witnesses relating hearsay about gangs keeping a low profile during the trial, she wrote: “The fact of the matter is that Santa Barbara crime rates have been generally declining, and have been well under state and national averages, and gang activity has been less violent than average.”  

She wrote that she appreciated the efforts and challenges of law enforcement dealing with gang activity, but the impact of that activity on the community at large “carries greater weight in this analysis.”

The plaintiffs stated that the Eastside and Westside gangs are two turf gangs at war with each other, attacking opposing members and recruiting children into their ranks while citizens cower in their homes, Sterne wrote. However, police used “unreliable and overstated” data to show a public nuisance.

The crime statistics compiled and presented by the SBPD had no context to show the ratio of gang-related crime rates compared to overall crime in the proposed safety zones and community as a whole, Sterne wrote. Several citizens who live and/or work in the proposed safety zones testified for the defense, saying they haven’t observed gang activity out in the open in their neighborhoods.

It was a small sampling, but that anecdotal testimony was more reliable than the hearsay testimony offered by law enforcement to the contrary, Sterne said.

No citizens testified in favor of the injunction.

Plaintiffs called SBPD witnesses, including gang expert Detective Gary Siegel, to talk about local gang history, culture and criminal activity.

Sterne said she did not find testimony convincing from two of the non-SBPD witnesses: Gregory Anderson, a deputy district attorney for Fresno County with experience obtaining gang injunctions, and former Eastside gang member Arthur Nevarez who is serving a life sentence in prison.

Anderson was knowledgeable about gang injunctions in general, but his understanding of Santa Barbara was lacking, Sterne said.

Nevarez, who is temporarily incarcerated in the County Jail, testified about gang communication in prison and the movement of money through a gang hierarchy. He acknowledged that his testimony could benefit his situation, and Sterne questioned his credibility, calling his testimony “obviously self-serving.”

Anderson testified that, in his opinion, gang injunctions are generally unsuccessful without demonstrable community support.

The SBPD and plaintiffs never offered “any evidence of any systematic effort to measure the need for an injunction (or lack of need) perceived by the community,” Sterne noted.

The public's perception proved central to the case.

Sterne concluded there is gang activity within the city and it is a nuisance, but not to the degree of imposing an injunction. 

It’s a “sad fact of gang life” that gangs prey on each other “in ways often invisible to the community around them,” she wrote. “The social concerns, from poverty, to substance abuse, to racism — there is a long list — that underlie gang activity at its roots cry out for serious attention.

“But the question asked relative to a gang injunction has to do with that very question of visibility, and how the activities of the gang are experienced, not just by gang members and their affiliates, families and friends, but by the larger community around them. This can be difficult for law enforcement, whose job is to deal with crime on a day to day basis. The general public does not experience crime in the same way.”

Noozhawk news editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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