NASHVILLE -- Chattanooga officials say local police already have identified some violent criminal street gangs that officials could eventually target under an expansion of Tennessee's Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act that takes effect July 1.
"The answer is yes," said Boyd Patterson, one of Mayor Ron Littlefield's two Gang Task Force coordinators, on Tuesday. "There are some specific criminal organizations in Chattanooga to whom the RICO bill could be applied."
The Chattanooga-initiated bill, which legislative records show Gov. Bill Haslam signed May 21, became an official state statute on Tuesday.
Also on Tuesday, Haslam held a ceremonial signing of the bill with Littlefield, former prosecutor Patterson, the Gang Task Force's outreach coordinator, Fred Houser, and several local lawmakers who sponsored the measure in attendance.
The measure expands the RICO law, which was restricted to child pornography and drug trafficking.
It redefines "racketeering activity" to include committing, attempting to commit, conspiring to commit or soliciting or coercing someone else to commit a criminal gang offense, according to a legislative summary of the legislation.
Those offenses include threatening or knowingly causing injury or death as well as receiving money or anything of value from the commission of any aggravated burglary or from the illegal sale, delivery or manufacture of a controlled substance or firearm.
Littlefield said local officials are interested in using the law only against the worst, most violence-prone gangs in the city.
"There have been some [instances] in the past where this bill would have facilitated doing just what we talked about, taking the heart out of the gang instead of taking out a single member who's then replaced by someone else," the mayor noted.
Patterson said the changes mean that instead of looking at individuals, "you look at violent groups, particularly gangs who more frequently engage in violence than other gangs."
Prosecutors will have to prove gang members are committing crimes in the interest of the gang, he said.
"What that means is that based on the information that the Chattanooga Police Department, the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office, have accumulated over the last several years, clearly we can use that to show which of those organizations qualify as a criminal street gang," Patterson said.
Officials "clearly know ... [who] those major participants are in those criminal street gangs, so a lot of the information that can be used in RICO prosecutions has already been accumulated and it's in the Chattanooga Police Department's files right now," he added.
According to the legislative summary, conviction under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act is a Class B felony punishable by a fine of up to $250,000 and/or between 12 and 20 years imprisonment.
A gang must have at least three members who either have two felony convictions or three misdemeanor convictions.
Patterson said officials initially won't be able to pursue a RICO case unless criminal gang members who meet the new definition commit yet another qualifying offense on July 1 or thereafter.
"What's going to have to happen is after the effective date of the legislation, that's when one of the predicate [underlying] acts has to be committed," Patterson noted. "For example, say a number of offenses were committed before [July 1]. Those can be used in the overall case as part of the case."
Littlefield emphasized the city has a two-pronged approach in curbing criminal gangs that have plagued some areas of the city. While critics have questioned the RICO changes, the mayor emphasized the city is also committed to coordinate social programs aimed at discouraging youths from joining gangs.
"We really are about keeping young people out of the gangs rather than arresting people," Littlefield said, noting the RICO expansion is a "tool" to be used "if necessary."
On Saturday, the city's Comprehensive Gang Task Force will kick off its prevention and intervention initiative, called "The Future Is Ours."
The event will be held at the Carver Recreation Center, 600 N. Orchard Knob Ave., on Saturday beginning at noon.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550.