Tennessee gangs bill has improved chances of passing into law

Tennessee gangs bill has improved chances of passing into law

March 10th, 2012 by Beth Burger in News

Document: Summary of HB 2868 and SB 3005

A statewide bill making it easier to go after gang members and give them stiffer prison sentences - a bill supported by Chattanooga leaders - has an improved chance of being passed into law after a study says it won't cost much to implement.

The law would place criminal gang offenses within the state's existing Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, where convictions would be class B felonies with sentences ranging from at least 12 to 20 years.

The Tennessee Legislature's Fiscal Review Committee posted a $109,800 fiscal note to the bill, but only measured the cost of housing two inmates sentenced under the RICO law. Officials in law enforcement have said they could use the law to prosecute more gang members and keep them in prison longer.

"We try to be conservative with our estimates," said Fiscal Review Committee Executive Director Lucian Geise.

He pointed out that he can't predict if there would be an increase in convictions under the bill; he can only use the data available. In the past five years, only three people have been sentenced to prison using the state's RICO statute, he said, so that's the number that's plugged into the funding formula.

Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, who introduced the bill along with Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said he's happy with the cost estimate.

"There's no way I'm going argue with a low fiscal note from the review committee. They know their stuff. With it coming in that low, I'm proud that it came in like that," Dean said.

"It makes good sense. It's just one more step to fighting crime that we're faced with," he said.

Nationwide, most gangs are prosecuted through state laws, but Tennessee has no law making it illegal to be in a criminal gang.

Under the state's RICO law, local investigators would be required to certify that those arrested are gang members, show that they have previous convictions and prove that they contributed to the gang's illegal activity to make money.

Boyd Patterson, former gang prosecutor in the Hamilton County District Attorney's Office and now coordinator of the city's anti-gang effort, said he supports the bill. Much of the information needed to convict under RICO is already in hand at the Chattanooga Police Department, he said.

"We can easily look at court records to determine which [gang] members have which requisite conditions," he said. "We have the gang validation to show the defendants are members of that gang."

The missing part would be to prove that "those gang members participated directly or indirectly in that criminal enterprise," he said.

Chattanooga Police Sgt. Todd Royval oversees the Crime Suppression Unit, which tracks gang activity. He said he's not sure a state RICO statute is needed to address the gang problem in the city. Federal RICO laws should be enough, he said.

"A RICO case is a very labor intensive and expensive case to investigate, and we would have to involve other state and federal agencies for assistance," Royval said. "It would be easier and more cost effective to use the current federal statute for RICO. A good RICO case would probably include defendants from outside of Hamilton County and possibly into other states, so I would be inclined to start a federal RICO case instead of a state RICO case."

Chattanooga Police Capt. Edwin McPherson oversees the special investigations unit, which includes Royval's group. He said the law is needed.

"I think that it will work for us in certain situations for people deserving of a stiffer penalty for the crimes they are committing," he said. "I really think that it is something we can use as leverage on gang bangers who want to go out here and commit crimes as a group or organization."