We frequently handle cases where the discovery states that law enforcement has identified our client as being gang-affiliated. Police agencies frequently collect information on individuals who they think are gang-involved and enter it into a database, which is then used to investigate criminal activity. Recent experiences in California, however, demonstrate that these databases should not be trusted.
California has long maintained a database called CalGang. The database, which is not open to civilians and is therefore largely secretive, contains the names and personal information of approximately 80,000 individuals. Most of the people identified in CalGang are not white, and are suspected of being gang-affiliated. CalGang has been a source of problems and complaints for years, and there have been calls to reform it or shut it down.
CalGang plainly illustrates the fact that a database is only as good as the information that is entered into it. A 2016 audit revealed that it contained numerous inaccurate entries, including identifying information for one-year-old children. People were also entered into the database based upon overly subjective criteria including, without limitation, the neighborhood where law enforcement encountered them or the color of their clothing. According to the people who run CalGang, wearing a red hat, shirt or sneakers is enough to make you a gang member.
Not surprisingly, one of the reasons CalGang was so inaccurate was because police officers were knowingly submitting false information about individuals they encountered under circumstances that did not even suggest gang involvement. Certain LAPD officers are now being prosecuted for having done so. A review of LAPD’s entries into CalGang led authorities to describe its contents as unreliable, inconsistent, and untrustworthy.
The problems for people wrongfully included in a database such as CalGang are legion. Having your name in such a database can result in harassment and unfair criminalization. It can result in the denial of housing and employment, and set the wrongfully identified individual up for harsh encounters with police in the future. It can also hurt immigration status.
Nobody can cogently argue that law enforcement should be denied to ability to collect information on gang activity, and then organize it in a manner that assists in criminal investigations. But to do so in a way that is haphazard or overly subjective sets people up for being wrongfully charged. This is a disservice to everyone. It can result in wrongful convictions which can ruin a person’s life. It loads already congested court dockets with baseless cases. It also gives corrupt police officers a tool that they can use in a purely vindictive manner to hurt people who get on their bad side.
When discovery states that the client has been identified as someone with gang ties, defense counsel should respond with discovery requests concerning the source of, and basis for, that information. If a defendant is in some sort of law enforcement database of gang members and the State is using that in any way to support its case or the charges, counsel should be entitled to probe that. How did the defendant land in the database? What specific incidents led to their inclusion? What was the source of the information? How current is the information, and who uncovered it?
As noted, a database is only as good as the information that goes into it. This means that there needs to be precise, objective, reasonable criteria for entering someone into a database such as CalGang. If the database is faulty in any way, the defendant and defense counsel should have the right to know that.
James S. Friedman, Esq., is a defense attorney based in New Brunswick, New Jersey, who represents defendants in criminal cases in all state and federal courts in New Jersey and New York City. If you have a criminal case in one of these Courts, call Mr. Friedman to learn about your options, and to start planning your defense.