Yes, in California, active participation in a criminal street gang is a crime. Under the California Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention (STEP) Act, it is illegal to actively participate in any criminal street gang with the knowledge that its members engage in criminal activities.
California Gang Participation and Promotion of a Felony
What Are Gang Affiliation Laws?
Gang affiliation laws are regulations that make it illegal to participate in, promote, or support gang activities. These laws aim to curb gang violence and activities by not only punishing those who commit crimes as gang members but also those who are affiliated with or support such groups.
What Are the Federal Laws Against Gang Affiliation?
Gang activity has federal implications when criminal enterprises span across states. The U.S. government has several laws to combat this. A primary law among them is the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, more commonly known as RICO.
The RICO Act was enacted in 1970, primarily targeting the Mafia and other organized crime syndicates. It sought to eradicate organized criminal activity and, importantly, the infiltration of legitimate businesses by organized crime. Over time, its applicability has expanded to address gang activities, given the structured nature of many gangs and their involvement in racketeering activities.
- Definition of Racketeering Activity: The Act lists a series of crimes, like bribery, kidnapping, gambling, arson, robbery, and dealing in controlled substances, to name a few. If any entity engages in a “pattern” of such activities, they can be prosecuted under RICO.
- Leadership Liability: A unique and powerful aspect of RICO is that it allows for leaders of an organization to be prosecuted for acts they ordered or facilitated, even if they didn’t commit those acts directly. This is especially crucial in tackling gangs where leaders often insulate themselves from the direct commission of crimes.
- Forfeiture Provisions: If convicted under RICO, not only do individuals face severe penalties, but their ill-gotten gains can be confiscated. This might include property, business interests, and any profits obtained from the racketeering activity. This provision is designed to strip the financial foundation of criminal enterprises.
Given the organized nature of many gangs, the federal government has used RICO to dismantle them, just as it once did with the Mafia. Gangs, like traditional crime syndicates, often have a hierarchy and engage in a pattern of racketeering activities. By targeting both foot soldiers and leaders and by seizing assets, the government can destabilize and weaken these groups.
A RICO conviction comes with substantial penalties. Individuals can face up to 20 years in prison for each racketeering count, and if the violation is based on a racketeering activity for which the maximum penalty includes life imprisonment (like murder), the RICO violation itself can lead to a life sentence.
Are There Specific Crimes Associated With Gang Violence and Active Affiliation?
Absolutely. Let’s dive deeper into the link between gang affiliation and the nature of the crimes committed.
- Violent Crimes: This category encompasses offenses like murder, assault, and battery. Due to territorial disputes, competition, or initiation rituals, gang members may engage in violent acts that can have tragic consequences for victims, whether they’re rival gang members, innocent bystanders, or even members of their own gang.
- Theft and Robbery: Gangs often resort to theft, from petty larceny to more organized forms like carjackings or burglaries. These acts often serve dual purposes: generating income for the gang and asserting dominance in a territory.
- Drug Trafficking: One of the most lucrative ventures for many gangs is the sale and distribution of illegal drugs. From street-level dealing to involvement in larger drug trafficking organizations, gangs play a significant role in the drug trade.
- Weapons Offenses: Given the violent nature of gang activities, illegal possession, distribution, and use of firearms are common. This not only pertains to the use of weapons in violent acts but also their illegal sale and trade.
- Racketeering and Money Laundering: Larger, more organized gangs may be involved in sophisticated criminal operations. These can include protection rackets, illegal gambling rings, or even schemes to launder their ill-gotten gains through legitimate business channels.
Crimes committed in association with, or for the benefit of, a gang can attract stiffer penalties than if they were committed independently. The rationale behind this is to deter gang-related criminal activity by making the consequences more severe.
Beyond the commission of the crime itself, simply being an active affiliate of a known criminal gang can result in legal repercussions. This affiliation suggests a continuous relationship with the gang and a pattern of criminal gang activity. Hence, even if an individual hasn’t personally committed a crime, their association can make them complicit or liable in certain circumstances.
What Is the California Gang Affiliation Enhancement Law?
In California, the STEP Act is designed to impose harsher sentences on those who commit felonies for the benefit of a gang. This means that if someone is found guilty of a felony and it’s proven that the crime was committed to benefit a gang, their prison sentence can be lengthened. A gang injunction can also be used.
What Does a Prosecutor Have to Prove Regarding California Gang Affiliation Enhancement?
To apply the gang enhancement in California, a prosecutor must prove:
- The defendant actively participated in a criminal street gang;
- The defendant knew that the gang’s members engaged in a pattern of criminal gang activity;
- The defendant willfully assisted, furthered, or promoted felonious criminal conduct by gang members.
What Time Will I Face According to the California Gang Affiliation Enhancement?
The additional time you face depends on the underlying felony. However, with gang enhancement, a crime can result in an additional sentence ranging from two years to life in prison. The exact duration varies depending on the severity of the crime committed and its relation to gang activities.
Are There Any Defenses to Gang Enhancement?
Yes, there are several defenses that can be used to challenge these allegations.
One might argue that the defendant was not an active participant in any gang activities. This defense challenges the fundamental assumption of the charges. Just because an individual might have grown up in a gang-dominated neighborhood, interacted with its members, or even attended social events where gang members were present, it doesn’t automatically implicate them in the gang’s illicit endeavors.
The difference between association and active participation is important. An individual’s casual interaction with gang members, even if they were friends or acquaintances, shouldn’t be misconstrued as a sign of criminal association.
Another defense centers around the nature and motivation of the crime. Even if someone was previously affiliated with a gang, it doesn’t conclude that every crime they commit serves the gang’s interests. There’s a multitude of reasons people engage in criminal activities, many of which can be entirely personal and unrelated to any gang objectives. A violent act resulting from a private dispute or a personal grievance, for instance, should not be automatically attributed to gang dynamics or interests.
Lastly, one could question the strength or credibility of the evidence that suggests gang affiliation or enhancement. In many cases, the evidence presented by the prosecution can be circumstantial or tenuous. Symbols, colors, or even certain types of apparel might be associated with gangs. However, wearing them doesn’t necessarily indicate active gang participation.
The burden is on the prosecution to provide definitive proof of active participation, intent, and association beyond mere symbols or affiliations. A local California attorney familiar with the state’s gang laws can provide guidance, ensure your rights are protected, and offer defense strategies.
Should I Contact a Lawyer for Help With a Gang Participation Charge?
Absolutely. If you’re facing a charge related to gang participation or activities, seek legal counsel.
If you need assistance, let LegalMatch connect you with a qualified California criminal lawyer. They’ll provide the experience and representation needed to handle complex gang-related charges.
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