Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Bill aims to ban some Nashville gang activities

Proposal could ban some activities By Chas Sisk • THE TENNESSEAN • March 18, 2009 Flashing a gang sign might soon draw jail time, under a measure being explored by Metro law enforcement. Metro attorneys and police officials are working on legislation that would let courts ban some non-criminal gang-related activities, such as making identifying gestures and associating publicly with members, in areas that are dominated by gangs. Violators could be charged with a civil misdemeanor. They would face as much as a $50 fine, 30 days in jail or both. District Attorney General Torry Johnson told Nashville-area lawmakers this week that the measure could be a powerful tool to stamp out gang organizing activity. Metro police estimate that 3,200 adults and 200 juveniles are members of gangs in Nashville. But some legislators expressed fears that the measure might trip up innocent people. "Certainly gangs are something we all need to be concerned about," Rep. Brenda Gilmore said. "But this legislation feels like it's going to be so far-reaching that we're going to be arresting and pulling in young boys that may not have anything to do with gangs." The legislation is still being drafted, but it could be introduced within the next two weeks, supporters said. Nashville's delegation to the General Assembly was briefed on the idea at a Monday meeting meant to bring local lawmakers up to speed on the city's law enforcement priorities. The measure would be modeled after laws in place in California and four other states. "They (Metro attorneys) are taking the best parts of these laws and piecing them together to construct legislation for Tennessee," said Don Aaron, a spokesman for Metro Police. The legislation would work by expanding the state's public nuisance statutes. That would let government attorneys ask courts to declare gangs a nuisance under civil law and set limits on the activities that people could engage in. Potentially criminal actions, such as vandalism and intimidation, could be banned under the law. Other actions that also could be covered include throwing up gang signs, hanging out with gang members in public areas and recruiting new members. Questions raised about law Opponents say the law raises the risk that people who are not gang members but live in gang-dominated areas might be falsely accused and arrested. It also could put people in jail who have never been charged with an actual crime. Proponents say the law would be used sparingly, and only after a detailed investigation by Metro police has identified gang members and gang activity in a specific area. That process alone could act as a deterrent, they said. "Gang members don't want to be on any type of list," said Rep. Janis Baird Sontany, a likely sponsor of the law. "This is just one more tool in the toolbox."

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