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Saturday, March 15, 2008

Washington State's Anti-Gang Crime Bill May Be Unconstitutional

Washington state's legislature is passing an "anti-gang bill" that includes provisions to fund police anti-gang taskforces, increased penalties for gang-related crimes, and supposedly deter recruitment by punishing adults who recruit teens into gangs.

However, the most troubling part of the anti-gang crime bill is how it defines a gang and the implementation of a state-wide gang watchlist database that will include the names of anyone a police officer accuses of belonging to a gang.

First, the bill defines a gang as an association of three or more individuals who share a symbol or name either formally or informally and who's members participate in a crime. Now, let's strip away the extraneous terms and, simply put, anyone who has an informal relationship to anyone who commits a crime and that informal relationship includes three or more people would be considered as a gang member. So, let's say a member of your bowling team commits a crime, that would mean that you could technically be labeled as a gang member.

Now, all of that aside, what burden of proof is involved in being labeled as a gang member? None.

Is there a way to make sure the names put in that database are really gang members? No. There is no oversight. There is no due-process. There is no judicial overview.

If a police officers decides to put your name in that database, it's there, you're profiled, and there is no mechanism available for you to appeal that designation and no way for you to clear your name in a court of law. This is the unconstitutional portion of the bill, allowing the executive to take punitive action on citizens without due process.

So, if your name gets placed on that database because, oh, let's say some officer decides he doesn't like your opinions about police accountability... then there is nothing you can do about it, no way for you to appeal, no judicial avenue available for you to plead not guilty... Nothing.

Guess what happens when you apply for a job and go through a background check. Well, you've been denied employment because your name was on an unconstitutional list of gang members and there is nothing you can do. (not to mention the absurdity of suggesting that denying alleged gang member employment will help induce gang members to go straight!)

This bill is, on the very face of it, illegal and unconstitutional. Without mechanisms of appeal and judicial oversight, it is a stark violation of civil rights that grants the executive branch unchecked power to harass citizens at will and without any burden of proof or consequence for abuse... and I guarantee that it will be abused.

...and I don't foresee anyone who will be willing to challenge it.

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