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Thursday, January 15, 2009

In new tactic, L.A. goes after gangs' money

The city of Los Angeles, plagued by 23,000 violent gang crimes since 2004, including 784 murders and 12,000 felony assaults, announced Tuesday that it had won its first civil judgment, for $5 million, against a criminal gang that had dominated the heroin trade downtown for decades.

The verdict could bode well for another first-of-its-kind lawsuit the city filed last month that goes after all assets of gang leaders, not just those associated with their criminal activity. Both suits seek to plow the money back into improving the neighborhoods affected by the gangs through a fund.

"By giving prosecutors more tools to fight gang activity at the local level, we are protecting our communities at the same time [that] we're able to strengthen our statewide anti-gang efforts," said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in a statement released with the announcement of the $5 million verdict against the 5th and Hill gang in L.A.

The civil suits were filed under different amendments to state laws, one passed in 2007 and one in 2008, designed to strengthen authorities' ability to control gangs. The 2007 amendment allows law enforcement to seize assets associated with criminal conduct. But the 2008 law goes even further – it allows prosecutors to collect damages from gang members' personal assets, too.

The December suit against the 18th Street gang is the first to make use of the 2008 amendment.

"We're sending a message to gang leaders across this city," said City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo at a press conference last month. "If you break the law, we will not only find you, arrest you, and put you behind bars, we will also take away your money, your property, your homes, and your cars. Every penny we strip away will be returned to the neighborhoods."

The tactic of trying to cripple organizations by taking away their assets has been commonly used against the mafia. More recently, it has been used against white supremacist organizations. In 2000, the Southern Poverty Law Center won a $6.3 million verdict against the Aryan Nations that forced the organization to give up its 20-acre compound in Idaho.

The center won its most recent case last November, getting $2.5 million from the Imperial Klans of America on behalf of a teenager assaulted by Klan members in rural Kentucky. [Mark Godsey]

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