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A criminal gang merits criminal conspiracy charges

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on March 31, 2010 at 7:28 pm with No Comments »
March 31, 2010 5:41 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

There’s never been a spectacle quite like it in a state court.

Thirty-two accused criminal conspirators – alleged members of the Hilltop Crips – crowded into one courtroom, with 30 defense attorneys, four prosecutors and more than 20 law-enforcement officers. Outside, sheriff’s deputies patrolling the lobbies and exterior of the County-City Building.

That’s what a major conspiracy case against a street gang looks like. Other states have successfully pursued such cases, as have federal prosecutors, but this is a first for Washington’s criminal justice system.

The strategy is promising, and the target looks well-chosen.

The Hilltop Crips – whose origins go back to the 1980s – have been described as Tacoma’s oldest criminal gang. A police offensive devastated them in the 1990s, but they’ve been mounting an aggressive comeback in recent years.

It must be emphasized that the “Hilltop” in the gang’s name is an anachronism. The Hilltop, once plagued with gang violence, is now one of the safest parts of Tacoma. For the most part, these thugs live elsewhere and commit their crimes elsewhere.

The Tacoma-Pierce County Violent Crimes Task Force – a partnership of the FBI, Tacoma and Lakewood police departments, the Washington State Patrol and Department of Corrections, and federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives – picked up on the Hilltops Crips’ resurgence in mid-2008.

The task force painstakingly assembled evidence against the gang, then began a sweep on Feb. 10. Two of the 36 accused gang members have evaded the mass arrests; two have already pleaded guilty.

Depending on the defendant, the charges include robberies, shootings, car thefts, assaults, burglaries, drug-trafficking, firearms violations and attempted murder.

All were charged with conspiracy, and nine with nothing but conspiracy. Tacoma detective John Ringer summed up the theory: “When they join the gang, they join the conspiracy.”

If the criminal acts were committed, the over-arching conspiracy charges are thoroughly justified. Innocent kids do not join the Hilltop Crips to earn merit badges and help elderly women cross the street. The group is all about criminality.

The one misgiving we have about this prosecution is the fact that the Pierce County Superior Court has set bail at $1 million for individual defendants, including those who were charged with nothing but conspiracy.

All of them have been declared indigent and given public attorneys. (It’s true: Crime usually doesn’t pay.) Under the circumstances, a $1 million bail amounts to being held without bail. A “reasonable” bail – which usually means a potentially affordable bail – is a constitutional safeguard based on the premise that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty.

Extra-high bails are certainly justified if the accused look as if they might flee or endanger others if set free. Still, it seems unlikely that each of these Crips poses an identical $1 million risk.

Bail has gotten a bad name since Maurice Clemmons paid his way out of jail last November and killed four Lakewood officers, but constitutional rights need the most protection precisely when they are most threatened by public outrage.

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