Houman Fakhimi

Authorities Target Gangs in Riverside, L.A.

Gang crimes in Riverside County have not only drawn the attention of local sheriff's officials, but of federal authorities as well.

Riverside Criminal Defense Lawyer Houman Fakhimi understands that federal authorities have now gone so far as to classify the MS-13 gang (Mara Salvatrucha) as a transnational criminal organization. This classification is intended to handicap the organization's ability to make money by requiring U.S. banks and other financial institutions to freeze accounts, property and property interests belonging to members of the gang. Additionally, bankers would have to immediately notify the U.S. Treasury of these blocked assets as well.

Obviously, this effort in particular targets the higher-ranking members of the MS-13 organization, which originates in El Salvador, where the leaders of the organization are said to reside. There are reportedly more than 30,000 MS-13 members around the world, with roughly 8,000 operating in the U.S. Many of those are in Southern California, and local officials say their numbers are growing.

(Similar designations have been handed to Mexico's Zetas gang and Japan's Yakuza gang.)

The designation follows a crackdown last month in Riverside County, where officials from the Hemet-San Jacinto Gang Task Force (part of the Riverside County Regional Gang Task force) held a series of high-visibility patrols in areas where gang members were known to gather. The team conducted probation and parole checks specifically targeting individuals believed to be involved in gang activity.

Of course, this measure in particular raises a host of probable cause and reasonable suspicion concerns, from the standpoint of criminal defense attorneys. The Fourth Amendment requires that an officer have reasonable suspicion when stopping a person and subsequently probable cause when making an arrest. At issue in these cases may be what reasonable suspicion the officers had when stopping individuals during this operation. For example, were they wearing certain gang-identified colors, or were they simply in a neighborhood where gang members are known to congregate? It's not a crime to stand on the street corner in a blue shirt.

In all during that operation, four guns and 20 grams of methamphetamine were found in possession of documented gang members.

California already has very tough sanctions for crimes allegedly committed by those who are identified as gang members or who associated with gang members. As part of the California Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act, California Penal Code 186.22 requires that anyone who commits a felony for the benefit of a gang will receive a mandatory prison sentence in addition to and consecutive to whatever punishment is received for the underlying offense. Depending on the circumstances, that could mean anywhere from an additional 5 to 25 years in prison.

In order to prove that you qualify for additional penalties under this enhancement, prosecutors would have to show that you either actively participated in a gang knowing that the members engaged in a pattern of criminal activity and that you willfully assisted, furthered or promoted the felonious activity of that gang.

According to the L.A. Times, the criminal activities of the MS-13 street gang are primarily focused on drugs dealing, extortion and human trafficking. In particular, police have said that gang members target illegal immigrants as either victims or to pressure into joining.

Back in 2007, the Times conducted an investigation and found that efforts by authorities to deport gang members back to El Salvador only served to allow the gang to gain a stronger foothold there and then strengthen its operations in the U.S.