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Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston speaks to the press in this file photo.
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East Lake gang injunction

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Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston asked a judge Wednesday to approve a "temporary" injunction that prohibits 31 men accused of being gang members from associating with each other in East Lake Courts.

But the request blindsided the small group of defense attorneys who weren't expecting it at the end of a check-up hearing.

"Pinkston didn't put it in his petition, he didn't ask for it at the first hearing, and he didn't notify anyone that he was going to ask today," said attorney Chrissy Mincy, who represents a few of the men. "And since those things weren't done, we were thrown off. But we'd like the opportunity to present more argument, now that we've been notified."

None of the defense attorneys should be surprised by Wednesday's development, Pinkston's spokeswoman, Melydia Clewell, wrote in an email afterward.

"There is no requirement that a hearing must be held before a judge can issue a temporary injunction. In fact, in most public nuisance cases, temporary injunctions are put into effect before defendants are even notified of the state's request."

When he announced his plan in September, Pinkston said the "gang injunction" would give police officers another legal tool to halt routine troublemakers in the gangs known as the Grape Street Crips and the Gangster Disciples. An injunction is a court order that requires an entity to stop doing something, similar to a restraining order or a cease-and-desist letter. And in this case, it would levy a $50 fine and up to 30 days of jail time for any targeted men who violate 11 listed activities, including owning graffiti equipment, drinking alcohol, possessing guns and drugs, signaling the arrival of police, and hanging out with other accused gang members. It has not been granted yet.

Defense attorneys have said the injunction would trample First Amendment rights to association, open the door to illegal searches, and widen the us- versus-them mentality that mars some relationships between minority communities and police officers. So far, they have largely fought Pinkston's petition by asking for more information about the state's investigation into the men.

The discovery process involves each legal team asking for any evidence the other team plans to use in a case. Mincy has asserted that Pinkston needs to provide more specific information before any kind of injunction can be used against the 31 men.

When Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman broached the topic Wednesday, Mincy explained how Pinkston's office hadn't provided complete answers to her requests. From his chair, Pinkston held up a stack of papers.

"We've got some supplemental answers to file with the court," he said.

Typically, attorneys alert their contemporaries to any motions or answers they file before a hearing.

From there, Wednesday's hearing launched into a lengthy debate on Pinkston's plan to depose five of the accused men. During a deposition, a defendant is placed under oath and asked to give truthful statements, often without a judge present. In this case, Pinkston said, several violent crimes prosecutors in his office would be involved.

Mincy objected to that, saying she was wary that prosecutors might get information from the men and use them in current or future cases against them. As she noted, one of her clients now is facing a probation violation in Steelman's Criminal Court. She suggested doing written responses to any of the state's questions. Pinkston countered that any public officials facing depositions should have the same option — since defense attorney Hank Hill, who is representing Norman Williams, said he plans to depose Chattanooga Housing Authority officer James Avery for his case.

Ultimately, Steelman suggested that Mincy take some time to review the new information Pinkston gave her. On the issue of depositions, he instructed the attorneys to tell their clients to show up. Defendants can plead the Fifth Amendment during a deposition to avoid incriminating themselves. If such issues arise, Steelman said, attorneys can file a motion with the court and proceed from there.

Then, Steelman mentioned making a schedule to keep the case on track, asking Pinkston for his input.

"We ask the court to issue a temporary injunction while discovery process is going on," Pinkston replied.

That drew quick criticism from Mincy and Hill, who said they were not prepared for a temporary injunction and wanted to introduce their own proof first. The state put on five hours of proof during the first hearing in October. Pinkston could have asked then, Mincy said.

"What I understood was [we were] simply going over motions," Hill said Wednesday. "I'm not prepared [to put on proof against] a temporary injunction. The court didn't find that the last time they were here. I don't see how resolving any discovery issues changes what we heard last time."

Afterward, spokeswoman Clewell was asked about Hill's comments.

"What happened today didn't change the fact that the judge can enter a temporary injunction at any time," she wrote.

If the temporary injunction is approved, Pinkston said, it would apply to the eight men who were never served with the petition and have never come to court. Pinkston has argued that serving "managing agents" in each gang provides enough notice for all the men. Defense attorneys countered that prosecutors never proved that their clients are in gangs, let alone hold leadership positions.

After listening and asking questions for about an hour and a half, Steelman said he would take the temporary injunction request under advisement. The next scheduled court date is Jan. 10 at 2 p.m.

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow on Twitter @zackpeterson918.

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