Gang injunction aims to make Cinco de Mayo saferby Brandt Williams, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul city officials will ask a Ramsey County Court judge to grant them a temporary injunction designed to prevent violence at a popular street festival. The targets are members of a St. Paul gang. If the injunction is approved, it would be the first such use of civil law in the state. Critics worry the case could erode basic rights guaranteed by the Constitution.
Minneapolis, Minn. — St. Paul city officials want the temporary injunction against members of the Sureno 13.
The court order would be in effect during the two-day, Cinco de Mayo festival which begins on May 1st. It would create a so-called safe zone around the West St. Paul neighborhood which hosts the event.
City officials filed their request in Ramsey County Court last month and then held a press conference to explain the reason for the motion.
"We know that Surenos are some serious bad guys and we want to make sure that they are not part of the party in St. Paul," said St. Paul police chief John Harrington.
Investigators suspect members of the Sureno 13 have committed brutal beatings and they have been implicated in a few unsolved murders.
But most significantly, they suspect a member of the gang was part of a drive-by shooting at last year's Cinco de Mayo.
Police officials believe there are 10 members of the gang operating in the city.
Sureno 13 gang members can attend the Cinco de Mayo festival, but the injunction language prohibits them from associating with other known gang members while inside the designated safe zone.
They are banned from wearing gang colors, flashing gang signs, tresspassing, blocking a street or sidewalk or other disruptive acts.
The injunction boosts police efforts to maintain public safety during the festival.
"If they're at the event, violating the court order, it is a misdemeanor crime, so therefore they have probable cause to remove them from the event," said St. Paul City attorney John Choi says. "And we think this is a tool that has worked - in fact it is a tool that has worked very successfully in other jurisdictions."
The city of San Diego has been using gang injunctions since the late 1990s, according to San Diego deputy city attorney Ken So.
There are permanent injunctions in some areas mapped out by police officers. The court orders have resulted in the reduction of crime and violence in neighborhoods which have been most affected by the presence of gangs.
"The idea is to break up the gang. So that they can't act together. You can't be a gang if you can't hang out with one another," So said. "And that's where the gang gets its strength is in numbers. That's how they intimidate people. That's how they commit their crimes."
So didn't have statistics to illustrate the effectiveness of the injunctions. But he says anecdotally, the laws have helped city residents reclaim their neighborhoods from the gangs.
"We have a number of concerns about this," said Chuck Samuelson, an attorney with the Minnesota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "There is a trend we find disturbing to use civil law instead of criminal law to address fundamentally criminal issues."
Samuelson says the difference between civil and criminal law lies in the burden of proof.
If a person is charged with a criminal offense, law enforcement has to present evidence to show that the suspect is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
But according to Samuelson, to be found guilty of a civil offense - such as violating a court-ordered injunction, there only needs to be a preponderance of evidence.
"That means simply, if you have two witness that say I'm not a gang member and they have three witnesses who say you are a gang member, they have a preponderance of evidence," he said. "They do not need to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you are a gang member."
Samuelson says if a gang member is found guilty of violating the injunction they could serve up to 90 days in jail. And in many cases, he says, the only evidence that a person is a known gang member, comes from the word of a rival gang member.
Samuelson says its tempting to overlook potential civil rights abuses when the subjects of the abuse are people associated with street gangs.
"I would like people to focus on the principle and not on the actors. In this particular case, these guys, are perhaps - I mean, I'm not endorsing their lifestyle. I don't know their lifestyle and I'm not even saying the police are totally wrong. I'm just saying, they haven't proved it in a criminal court."
Samuelson says he's worried that if the Ramsey County judge grants the injunction for Cinco de Mayo, that more actions will follow, including permanent geographic gang bans.
St. Paul city officials say they'd like to obtain similar injunctions for other large events like the Taste of Minnesota and Rondo Days.
- Morning Edition, 04/24/2009, 7:25 a.m.