Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Prosecutors expand legal arsenal to target gang members

By Susan Spencer-Wendel

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

When 19-year-old Johnathon Carr got stopped by Boynton Beach police this year for a traffic offense, an officer asked if he had any weapons in the car. "No, but you're lucky I don't have that!" said Carr, pointing to an officer's AR-15 rifle. "This is B-town. We're cop killers. Ya'll are gonna need that M-16."

Carr spouted off that he was a member of the B-town Boys gang, that they "rolled" with AK-47s and the officers should be scared, according to a police report. There at the scene, police arrested Carr for threatening a public official, a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison.

But when the case crossed the desk of Assistant State Attorney Greg Kridos, the prosecutor upped the ante.

Kridos dusted off an anti-gang statute for the first time in a long while, a state law allowing him to enhance the charge against Carr. Carr now faces up to 15 years in prison.

As gang activity and violent crime in Florida surges, prosecutors are switching tacks, realigning attorneys, cooperating across quarters to identify gang members and apply the harshest penalties possible.

Palm Beach County law enforcement officials have identified about 130 gangs operating in the county. Among the ones making headlines this year is Top 6, which is linked to nearly a dozen fatal shootings in the past year, including an ambush in Lake Worth that left three dead and four people injured.

Recently, local federal prosecutors began adopting more cases from state prosecutors, applying harsher gun and drug laws to the most violent gang-related offenders. The U.S. Attorney's Office in West Palm Beach has more than 30 gang members charged or about to be charged, said the office's head prosecutor, Andrew Lourie.

It is one prong of a push by the chief federal prosecutor of South Florida. U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta says the first part of the plan is taking the most violent gang members off the streets. "But that is only a temporary measure. What we need to do in the long run is we need to take the entire organization off the street," Acosta said.

How to do that?

The same way federal prosecutors tackled the mob: RICO - the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, allowing a stockpile of charges against all those associated with a criminal enterprise.

"My view is a gang is organized crime. They might not have the high-powered connections. They might not have the history, but it is still a group of individuals that are engaged in criminal activities," Acosta said. "It's an aggressive approach, a bit novel, but I think it's perfectly justified."

RICO convictions reap dire sentences, including the federal death penalty. This month, federal prosecutors in the Washington area announced they will seek the death penalty in a racketeering case alleging gang-related murders.

Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum said over the past 25 years, gangs have grown more in Florida than any other state in the nation.

Yet, Florida has no statewide strategy, something McCollum said he is working to change.

McCollum said Statewide Prosecutor Bill Shepherd will seat a grand jury this summer to explore gangs and drugs. The last time that was done was in 1991.

The grand jury will sit in Palm Beach County but have the power to call witnesses from all around the state. McCollum said the group will be used not just to indict gang members, but also make recommendations, such as changes in legislation.

This past legislative session, state Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres, and Rep. Adam Hasner, R-Delray Beach, sponsored legislation to enhance Florida's gang laws. The measure did not make it in time for a vote before the session ended. It included a new definition of gangs as organized crime.

Aronberg said it was a total change from viewing gangs as a slipshod, disorganized group to a well-funded entity that closely resembles the Mafia. "Old laws have not been sufficient to wipe these gangs out of business," he said.

And some old laws have been rarely employed.

When local prosecutor Kridos charged Carr - the 19-year-old who bragged of his gang affiliation - he relied on a chapter of Florida law called Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention.

Attorney General McCollum said the chapter has been used very little by prosecutors around the state. Created in 1990, the chapter morphed over the years after legal challenges, requiring prosecutors to prove more and more about a defendant's gang membership and how his criminal acts benefitted or promoted the group.

Something that can be very hard to do if the defendant doesn't spout off about it himself.

Staff researcher Niels Heimeriks contributed to this story.

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