Community News New hearing set for 'safety zone' measure

Community News New hearing set for 'safety zone' measure

October 12th, 2016 by Zack Peterson in Community Metro

Bullet holes are visible in the siding of the home where LaDarious Bush, 17, was shot and killed on Seventh Avenue in a wave of gang violence earlier this year.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

An EMS worker wears a bulletproof vest to respond to a call at Clifton Hills Elementary School in April after a wave of gang violence.

An EMS worker wears a bulletproof vest to...

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Another hearing to determine whether to enact a "safety zone" to deter gang activity in East Lake is set for Oct. 31 at 10:30 a.m.

If approved, the move by District Attorney General Neal Pinkston would levy a $50 fine and 30 days of jail time for any targeted man who violates 11 listed activities, most of which are already illegal, Pinkston said. Those activities include owning graffiti equipment, drinking alcohol, possessing guns and drugs, signaling the arrival of police, and hanging out with other accused gang members.

Though Pinkston argues the "gang injunction" would give law enforcement another tool to make East Lake safer, defense attorneys counter that it would open the door to illegal police seizures and run afoul of people's First Amendment rights to association.

"I understand Pinkston's desire to use every tool at his disposal to combat violent crime," said attorney Chrissy Mincy, who is representing several of the 31 men targeted by Pinkston's recently filed petition for injunction. However, she said, "I think a number of constitutional issues need to be raised before an injunction like this goes down."

An initial hearing last week offered each of the 31 men, believed to be members of violent gangs, the opportunity to defend himself or ask to "opt out" of the petition altogether. To dismiss themselves, though, they must file proper notice, declare in a written statement they're reformed men, and prove they haven't been arrested in the past two years.

To validate someone as a gang member, police officers use a points process. Tattoos, self-admittance, and associating with other gang members are all weighed differently, and a person only needs 10 points. Anything less means you're associated.

During the hearing last Monday, Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman started with a roll call to determine who showed up to defend themselves. Courtroom officers brought in six men who were already in jail and seated them in a row. One man who went to court earlier in the day refused to return for the hearing. A second who was served in the Tennessee Department of Correction couldn't attend. And a third man was in Bradley County on a federal hold.

Another four or five men who weren't in custody came to court.

Their defense attorneys stayed for the entire hearing, focusing mostly on whether any prior criminal history was related to gang activity; whether the police attempts to validate people as gang members were legitimate; whether the community members who testified knew any of their clients personally; whether authorities could serve gangs like structured corporations; and, consequently, whether there was any proof that accused men held any leadership or managerial positions within the gangs.

Hank Hill, who is representing Norman Williams, an accused member of the Gangster Disciples, focused on weekly gang meetings and the criteria that police use to validate someone as a member.

"When was the last weekly meeting he went to?" Hill asked Curtis Penney, an officer with the Chattanooga Police Department who has experience doing social media investigations on local gangs.

Penney said he didn't know because officers usually rely on confidential informants for that data, however, records placed Williams at his last meeting in 2011. When Hill asked for evidence that showed Williams' gang activity in the last five years, Pinkston pointed to three separate validation forms.

"Do you know how old Mr. Williams was when he picked up his most significant charges for robberies and burglaries?" Hill asked Penney. The officer said he didn't.

He was 17, said Hill.

The attorney also asked how his client's criminal cases for possessing marijuana or trespassing proved any kind of gang leadership.

That became a central theme, because defense attorneys say the petition tries to treat gangs like corporations. But because the state doesn't have a mailing address for these gangs, the petition argues that serving a high-ranking gang member would help word travel.

In addition to Penney, Pinkston painted a picture of the violence in the East Lake region by playing seven videos of drive-by shootings and calling police officers, investigators, and community and business members who discussed the impact of gang activity.

Nearly five hours of witness testimony relayed the same message: East Lake is a hub of criminal activity, thanks to 31 men who belong to violent gangs. Steelman forbade witnesses from specifically discussing the 31 accused men named in Hamilton County's first-of-its-kind "gang injunction."

"I want to give the attorneys who represent the defendants time to review all the exhibits, to consider all the testimony today, and to think about the issues related to the matter," Steelman said.

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