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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Commentary: Reisig Cowardly Passes the Buck After Setback

The decision by California's 3rd District Court of Appeal struck down an overly broad injunction against a West Sacramento Gang this week. This is not generally a court known for its activism or its liberalism. However, the violation of due process was obvious even to the more callous and cautious members of the community.

Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Reisig intentionally attempted to circumvent due process requirements in order to get the injunction imposed by only serving one single individual. The fact that Yolo County Judge Thomas Warriner allowed it to stand after the initial challenge on the grounds that the individuals had no standing to contest the law, since they would not acknowledge that they were gang members, speaks volumes about his own judgment.

The attack on civil liberties here is clear--the court struck down the law based on a narrow issue--the lack of proper notification to affected parties. Reisig in his haste and attempt to impose the curfew on a broad range of individuals without anyone to contest the order, served merely one individual with a notice to appear. While he defended his decision based on a notion that they would relay the message through their informal network, the court easily threw that defense aside.

Due process of the law is paramount in any society governed by the rule of law and this policy imposed by Reisig when he was a Deputy District Attorney blatantly violated those norms.

Moreover there was not a requirement that anyone had to be convicted of a crime in order to be labeled a gang member. That combined with the failure to notice individuals about a court hearing created a clear violation of state and federal due process requirements. This was clearly a policy that threatened to sweep a number of innocent people in with hardened gang members. Those decrying this ruling have failed to take into account that a number of the individuals served here have strong evidence that they are not in fact gang members at all.

However, by far the most shocking and appalling act of cowardice was the buck that Reisig passed after the decision--for he promptly dumped the entire mess that he had created through his own laziness and attempt to circumvent due process, into the lap of the city officials of West Sacramento most particularly Mayor Christopher Cabaldon.

Reisig told reporters after the Monday decision that he would seek another injunction only if West Sacramento city leaders, including Mayor Christopher Cabaldon, wanted it.

Mayor Cabaldon of course has been a supporter of the gang injunction. He was quoted in Wednesday's Sacramento Bee as saying:

West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon said evidence from residents and police indicates crime is down since the injunction was enforced.

"From the beginning it has all been about achieving a balance between assuring public safety in the community and to protect the constitutional rights for all of our residents," Cabaldon said.

However, the measure is very polarizing. Many Latinos feel that the measure unduly singles out Latinos regardless of whether or not they are gang members--giving police broad discretion to harass any Latino in the gang injunction zone. Residents feel that it has a chilling effect on social and community activities. And some have accused the police of forcing gang confessions on them, placing them under the lifelong ban with no legal recourse or means to fight the charges.

On the other hand, many residents feel the opposite, that the gangs are a menace and that this is the only way to fight them.

Thus no matter what the Mayor does at this point, he will anger a large constituency as he faces a nomination fight in the Democratic Party for the 8th Assembly District. Reisig has done him no favors here by passing the decision making to Cabaldon. Cabaldon would be well served by dumping it right back into Reisig's lap by criticizing the District Attorney for trying to cut corners with the initial injunction and recognizing to the public that Reisig is the county's chief law enforcement officer and that Reisig himself makes such decisions.

Whatever one feels about Cabaldon here, there an issue of fairness and it was simply not fair for Reisig to dump this into the lap of the Mayor. Reisig is the one that made several crucial mistakes in the application of this policy that would be controversial enough even with proper notification. In other words, the court decision to strike down this injunction was completely and totally on District Attorney Jeff Reisig watch and instead of making a decision as to whether or not he should attempt to rewrite the injunction and properly notice individuals he dumped it on Mayor Cabaldon.

District Attorney Jeff Reisig was just seated this January as Yolo County's first new District Attorney in over 20 years. He was elected with near unanimous support from law enforcement and yet promised to make reforms and do things differently. However, this policy and the handling of this decision demonstrate that in fact it is still business as usual in the Yolo County criminal justice system. Civil liberties are still violated and responsibility and accountability skirted. At the end of the day, Yolo County needed a clean break in the District Attorney's office and Reisig will not provide that.

The Sacramento Bee had their own scathing editorial for the District Attorney who less than one year ago they had endorsed:

After the ruling, a disappointed Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Reisig cited the brutal attack on an Amtrak conductor last week allegedly by members of the Broderick Boys as proof of the need for the gang injunction. But Reisig overlooks the obvious: The injunction was in place and had been for more than two years when the attack took place. It did not prevent that crime.

As the court's opinion makes clear, the injunction was too blunt an instrument. The order lacked necessary safeguards for those affected. In the tight-knit communities of working-class Broderick, the injunction posed the risk of sweeping too many innocent people into a very wide net.

The next time Reisig moves against gangs, he should consult first with local officials and residents to get their advice and their support, both of which appeared noticeably absent the first time around.

This was a point that was made yesterday in the comments section--the gang injunction did nothing to protect the Amtrak employee from being beaten. It is nice to see the Sacramento Bee call Reisig on that aspect.

However, it remains even more appalling to me that it took an appellate court to strike down this rather obvious and blatant violation of the constitutional right to due process which seems to shape the entire Yolo County criminal justice system.

It is Reisig who needs to make the decision to revisit the injunction and not Mayor Cabaldon. Proper noticing will require great effort on the part of the prosecutor's office and then it will involve a lengthy court challenge as the defendants and the ACLU challenge the constitutionality of the gang injunction itself. The court explicitly left open that possibility, however, the proper process will take time and expense. It would seem to us that there would be other ways to combat gang activity that do not infringe upon the rights of potentially innocent people without the possiblity of due process of law.

This entire episode has left an unfortunate smudge on Yolo County law enforcement, but even more unfortunately represents only the tip of the iceberg. Someone needs to come in and clean up Yolo County and unfortunately this case confirms what we already suspected, Jeff Reisig is not the man to do it.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting