Arizona’s definition of a “street gang” has helped fight crime in the Valley – but can it be applied fairly?
In late 2011, a bar fight broke out on Prescott’s famed Whiskey Row between members of the Iron Brotherhood Motorcycle Club and an intoxicated man who made the mistake of asking the club president about patches on his vest.
Not an extraordinary turn of events, save one detail – the Iron Brotherhood is composed solely of past and present law enforcement officers, several of whom carried knives and brass knuckles that night in Prescott. Under Arizona’s tough anti-gang law, the cops could have been charged and prosecuted as a street gang, much as prosecutors went after a Hells Angels chapter in nearby Chino Valley after a well-publicized shootout with a rival motorcycle club the year before.
But they weren’t – a fact that compels some critics to question the fairness of a law that has played a critical role in suppressing gang activity in Phoenix and elsewhere.
“[Iron Brotherhood] is a group of people that, if you look at this statute, absolutely fits the criteria,” says Valley criminal defense attorney Richard Gaxiola, who represented one of the Hells Angels in the aforementioned case. “So are they going to apply the same statute absolutely? If not, it’s selective and gives the appearance of special treatment.”
The policy in question – Arizona statute 13-105 – arose out of a law enforcement initiative that began two decades ago, when the expansion of well-known California street gangs had the Valley on edge. In 1992, Phoenix gang violence peaked with 918 incidents, according to FBI data. Not coincidentally, that was also the year Arizona’s Department of Public Safety launched the Gang Intelligence Team Enforcement Mission (GITEM), a multi-agency program to quell gang activity.
The state also passed several measures to aid law enforcement. One of them was 13-105, which lays out a set of criteria – including “tattoos” and “paraphernalia or photographs” – that formally defines a “criminal street gang member” (see graphic). Were a gang suspect to meet the criteria, Arizona courts could apply enhanced sentencing to any felony, as they can in cases of hate crimes.
The results speak for themselves. Street gang violence in Phoenix fell precipitously to 331 incidents in 1998, and a more recent FBI report shows between two and four people per 1,000 in Arizona are gang members, putting us in the lower tier of U.S. states.
Asked if the laws are effective, Phoenix Police lieutenant Sean Connolly gives a measured response. “Does effective mean we have produced... a healthy lifestyle change in those communities affected by gang violence?” asks the 21-year task force veteran. “Maybe not. But has it helped us imprison gang members and violent criminals by giving us the latitude and tools? Yes, it has.”
Connolly understands concerns about the laws being applied unevenly but insists he doesn’t see that in practice. “I don’t think it’s too broad-based,” he says. “We document gang members based on the system given us by the law. But it’s the totality of the circumstances, the totality of all the things we see and hear and their specific behavior that guides us... not just the definition.”
However, criminal defenders like Gaxiola see an equal-protection problem that could lead to abuse. “The laws are being used so broadly that they can attack anybody who fits. A group of Marines could qualify under these criteria,” Gaxiola says. “[We need] to tighten the language of this broad-based definition.”