New hope for gang-ridden streets

Gang-infested neighborhoods in San Francisco and San Mateo County could soon win well-deserved monetary payback from the local criminals who deal drugs on the streets, kill innocent bystanders and terrorize law-abiding citizens.

Senate Bill 271 is a little-publicized state law taking effect in January 2008. It empowers local prosecutors to sue for damages and seize economic assets — cars, bank accounts, etc. — of known gang members who violate court-ordered injunctions against creating a public nuisance by congregating on their home turf.

The bill specifies that any collected funds must somehow be returned to the injured community. Signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last week after sailing unanimously through both legislative houses, SB 271 became America’s only locally enforceable anti-gang seizure law. It gives city and county attorneys a weapon already held by the stateattorney general but never used because of limited staff resources.

“Gangs terrorize our communities and hold our neighborhoods hostage,” the governor said in his signing statement. “This bill has important provisions that will enable prosecutors to go after the financial means that these criminal organizations rely on.”

Until passage of SB 271, local prosecutors could only enforce court injunctions against street gangs by the overly cumbersome method of filing misdemeanor charges carrying up to six months in jail. Now they can act to hamstring financing of the gangs’ deeply entrenched drug businesses, while also gaining some repayment for long-suffering neighborhoods.

The legislation was pushed by Southern California legislators at the urging of the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office. L.A. is recognized as the nation’s “gang capital,” with nearly 40,000 active gang members and 33 injunctions already in effect.

The Bay Area’s first gang-nuisance injunction was obtained last year by San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera, who got some 25 alleged members of the Oakdale Mob banned from associating in a central sector of the Bayview. The results have been satisfactory enough that Herrera last month filed a lawsuit to restrict the activities of as many as 85 additional alleged gang members in the Mission and Western Addition.

San Mateo County has not sought any gang injunctions yet. But active gang territories are well recognized in various neighborhoods of Redwood City, East Palo Alto and Daly City. Several Peninsula injunctions were under preparation by the District Attorney’s Office. But to date each of the problem areas were remediated by aggressive concentrations of police manpower.

Of course, potential for civil rights abuses of the wrongly accused does increase when law enforcement is granted additional powers to combat a changing criminal environment. This must be carefully guarded against. However, taking back the streets for law-abiding citizens should be a foundation of effective government, so we welcome the arrival of this powerful new weapon against lawless gangs holding too many neighborhoods hostage.

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