New law gives prosecutors ability to slap gangs with more felonies

Sunday, July 14, 2013 at 11:42pm

Gang members charged in Tennessee courts will be eligible to be charged with tougher felonies, leading to longer prison sentences as a new enhanced sentencing law simplifies how organized crime is prosecuted.

The new legislation, which went into effect on July 1, rewrote the state’s definition of a criminal gang offense and categorizes 26 crimes as such, including aggravated assault, carjacking and possession with intent to sell.

Prosecutors can increase the felony level and request a harsher sentence by proving the offense was committed as part of a criminal gang with less evidence than required under the previous statute, which Assistant District Attorney Rob McGuire said was “tougher to work with.”

McGuire, who has prosecuted gang cases in Nashville since 2006, called the bill a response by the legislature to the unique challenges that apply to prosecuting gang members.

The loose, unwritten structure of criminal gangs often makes it difficult for investigators to pin down physical evidence or records of a member’s involvement, and witness testimony is even harder to obtain.

A “culture of silence” keeps gang members and witnesses from talking, McGuire said.

“If it’s a violent crime, it’s very difficult,” he said. “Citizens are afraid, not just of the individual, but of the individual’s organization.”

McGuire said witnesses in Nashville had not experienced any serious retaliation for testifying — the worst being some harassing phone calls — but citizens are still choosing to keep quiet about crimes in their communities.

Prosecutors hope the new legislation will bridge the gap between what investigators know and what they can bring into court.

“Flexibility — that’s what we need,” McGuire said. “Recognize that this is difficult proof to get, and strike that balance between being fair to the defendant and protecting the community when there’s a high level of violence corresponding with this.”

For investigators, the new bill means building solid, well-documented cases and emphasizing the partnership between police work and prosecution, said Lt. Steve Duncan, head of the Metro Nashville Police Department’s gang units.

“We investigate the gang members, the gang and the activities, so anything that would enhance sentencing in relation to that, we’re obviously a proponent of,” Duncan said. “We try to utilize all the tools.”

A 2012 report compiled by Gov. Bill Haslam’s public safety forum estimated gang members in Tennessee outnumbered law enforcement 2 to 1, prompting increased investigation and legislation.

The MNPD actually has three gang units that work with precincts to put officers into areas with an active gang presence.

“If you’re in South Nashville, you may think the Kurdish Pride gang is a huge problem because that’s what you see; if you’re in North Nashville, Crips; but we see activity in pretty much all parts of the city,” Duncan said.

11 Comments on this post:

By: BenDover on 7/15/13 at 8:33

This sounds good but it will end up being abused by the state.

Remember when they passed the ban on Alcohol in state parks to give the rangers a 'tool to deal with the unruly'? They even testified before the legislature that they expected to use this only in the exception case. Now they shake down everyone because they have the 'authoritah' to do so.

Small town municipalities will be stretching this new law to the maximum to keep their boot on the throat of 'rising criminal activity' [in other words to increase fines, keep their jail census up, and better justify expansion of their little fiefdoms].

By: bmx51 on 7/15/13 at 9:39

Yeah, let's find more ways to put blacks in jail. What is classified as a gang? Most likely it is black and in a group i.e. inner-city high school sports team, black youths drinking at a club, more than four black individuals in a car. When will this targeted legislative nonsense end?

By: C.A.Jones on 7/15/13 at 10:38

Wow, bmx51. You have probably the lowest opinion of African-Americans i've heard in quite a while. It wasn't' until you spoke up that I realized all gangs are comprised solely of black people. Thanks for the clarification, you racist pig.

By: JAWS on 7/15/13 at 11:05

JAWS. While I agree with bmx51 about putting more blacks in jail, but look who the gang activitys majority race are black and hispanic. I blame the parents, for I have seen first hand, that they dont care about what their kid does. Yes right there in Nashville, kids running a muck, no or little supervision at all. Youth does not have to be in a gang to be somebody. Why dont you work on building each other up with positive energy within your community be a leader and show by example. Who says you have to drink to have fun? Prove them wrong be somebody!!! Have a little faith in your race, dont cry about. Everyone on this earth is responsible for their own Behavior. By the way dont call me a racist, my wonderful responisble children are half black.

By: courier37027 on 7/15/13 at 11:51

:Davisdon County is gang free thanks to former Police Chief Ronal Serpass and his "gang summit". No, thanks. We won't be needing these laws.

By: bfra on 7/15/13 at 12:11

courier are you making a joke?

By: bmx51 on 7/15/13 at 12:47

Written sarcasm does not translate well. To clarify, my remarks are sarcastic. What's funny and sad is JAWS agrees mostly with my off the wall remarks, hence the problem.

By: yucchhii on 7/15/13 at 2:44

Ok, this is what it needs to be but politicians don't give a dam untill something happens to them! "ALL" street gangs "AND" wanna be's need to be round ed up in all cities and states. They need to be put in a huge STEEL WALLED room where the door can only be opened from the OUTSIDE. NO windows! from the outside a button is pressed and a cache of ak's are revealed. The doors do NOT open until "ALL" are DEAD!!! END OF PROBLEM OF STREET GANGS AND NO MORE WASTING TAXPAYERS MONEY!!! PLAIN AND SIMPLE!!!.....DONE!!!

By: ancienthighway on 7/15/13 at 3:33

I wasn't sure I read this right after I first woke up this morning, but I see I did.

This law, if allowed to stand, means one can be convicted of harsher felonies with more circumstantial evidence. Actual proof of gang activity isn't needed, so a single criminal could possibly be slapped with the provisions this law provides. And if you had a partner, hang it up. Until this law is used on white hate groups, it's nothing more than trumped up profiling.

Does McGuire really think that the "culture of silence" is a new phenomenon? As long as there's been crime, this culture has been around. I have to wonder, if I was picked up on some trumped up charge, and I didn't tell who was involved (primarily because there was no crime for anyone to be involved in), for how long would I be put away.

By: BenDover on 7/15/13 at 5:01

bmx.... your sarcasm was clearly evident. I agree that it's messed that someone agreed with it.

By: courier37027 on 7/16/13 at 7:32

Bfra, I am recalling actual events that were a joke when they occured.