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Utah lawmakers aim to crack down on gang crime

March 3, 2009

Utah lawmakers aim to crack down on gang crime
By Heather Whittle

Utah lawmakers have declared war on gang crime, noting the recent escalation of gang-related crimes within the state.

Three legislators are pushing for the passage of six bills that would result in harsher punishments for gang crimes.

Sen. Jon Greiner, R-Ogden; Rep. Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake City; and Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, are the main movers behind these bills,
which aim to target gang members’ activities, from loitering to shootings.

The most controversial of these bills is Greiner’s SB16. This bill would make it an offense for groups including gang members to fail to disperse from loitering in a public place.

It further stipulates:

.A peace officer may order a group containing known gang members to
disperse if it is in a designated gang-free zone.

.The officer must make known that failure to disperse will result in

.Municipal and county legislative bodies must designate gang-free zones.

.Failure to disperse is a class B misdemeanor. An additional offense is another $100.

.Officers must receive training to ensure that constitutional rights remain protected.

.Officers must receive training on identifying gang members.

This legislation was partially inspired by an August, 2007 shooting death on a piece of land owned by an out-of-state bank in Ogden, where Greiner is police chief.

“We couldn’t do our traditional process to get the landowner to put up a ‘no trespassing’ sign,” Greiner said. “Six or seven months went by. There was a 15-year-old illegal gang member who we were aware of, who had been arrested. To enhance his stature in the gang, he went up onto the property and shot a 22-year-old lady in the back who died.”

Many lawmakers have questioned the constitutionality of such a bill.

The Legislature made some changes to the bill to address those concerns,
adding a section on individuals’ constitutional rights to collective advocacy.

The bill requires that the sheriff or chief of police “issue a written directive to all agency employees that provides information on preventing the enforcement . against persons who are engaged in constitutionally protected collective advocacy activities.”

But some are still uneasy.

“I still have some concerns that this is limiting individuals too severely and their freedom to assemble,” said Sen. Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake. “I think it still gives a little too much discretion to the officer to make a determination that there are gang members, which I think is not always the case.”

Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake, said she would respond to her constituents’ concerns about this bill by voting against it.

“I believe the intent is a good intent, but I’m concerned about unintended consequences with regard to constitutionality issues and possibly impacting people that may be with their families in certain public places and may end up being profiled,” she said.

Despite reluctance on the part of some lawmakers, the final version of the bill has passed in both chambers. Greiner said he feels this version of the bill is a fair compromise to the questions fired at last year’s version of the bill, SB75.

“This is just one of many that the criminal justice and interim committee felt very strongly about and felt that this was an area that they could be very positive to their communities in reinforcing the anti-gang message, particularly if this narrow piece of it were enacted,” he said.

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