Tuesday, January 15, 2008
It's been approximately six months since the Sunnyside City Council took action against gangs in town by passing an ordinance making membership in a criminal gang illegal.
The ordinance makes it possible for the courts to add enhancements if Sunnyside police can prove a crime was gang related or benefited a gang in anyway.
Sunnyside Deputy Police Chief Phil Schenk said it's something the police are being careful with, adding the police do not want to violate individual's civil rights.
The police are moving slowly with this because sometimes it can be very difficult to prove if a crime benefited a gang.
He did say, however, that proving a home owner or renter is being a public nuisance is a lot easier to prove.
If someone is maintaining a house where criminal gang activity takes place, they can be charged with maintaining a public nuisance.
"This is usually an incentive for the parent or home owners to make the changes needed," Schenk said. "This is probably where the ordinance is used most."
The ordinance allows Sunnyside courts to make enhancements to sentences handed out.
For example, Schenk said if someone was in a bar fight for the first time, jail time may not be given to the suspect. If police can prove the fight was gang related, a person who has a first offense could get 10 days in jail. That amount would go up to 30 days in jail for a second offense and 180 days in jail for a third offense.
Schenk did say the use of enhancements is up to the discretion of the judge hearing the case.
According to Sunnyside City Attorney Mark Kunkler, there have been at least two cases so far where gang enhancements have been used in prosecution.
One involved a person who was driving a vehicle with other gang members in it. The person driving the vehicle made several passes by a house and the occupants inside the car flashed gang signs to people on the street.
Police used this information to pull over the vehicle and it was found the driver had a suspended driver's license. The driver was charged with driving with a suspended license with the gang enhancement.
Kunkler said normally a person facing this charge would be given an opportunity to try to get his license taken care of and then the case would be dismissed. Or, a normal guilty plea would be given a sentence of 90 days in jail with 90 days suspended. With the gang enhancement, a mandatory minimum of two days in jail kicks in on a first offense.
In the other case prosecuted with sentencing enhancements, a parent was charged with maintaining a public nuisance. Police received a report of stolen property and a citizen followed some kids believed to be involved to a house, where the youths disappeared. One of the kids lived in the house and the father was issued a citation for this incident and prior incidents in the past. This case is still working its way through the courts. The parent could face a fine of up to $1,000.