This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.
Thomas Felnagle is a fine judge, but we devoutly hope he’s wrong about using conspiracy charges against street gangs.
The Pierce County Superior Court judge ruled Friday that prosecutors cannot target members of the Hilltop Crips solely on the basis of their alleged affiliation with the violent gang; any prosecutions must tie defendants to specific criminal acts they personally participated in.
As it happens, his ruling may not have much effect on the cases against three dozen suspected Crips who’ve been rounded up since February by a task force of local, state and federal law enforcement officers. That’s because there was such an abundance of crimes to charge: shootings, robberies, assaults, burglaries – more than 50 felonies in all.
Ten of the 36 have already pleaded guilty to one count or another; most of the rest are charged with personally carrying out at least one criminal act. Only one or two might have all charges dismissed if Felnagle’s ruling holds.
All of the original defendants were charged with conspiracy to commit 13 crimes – not necessarily with carrying out those crimes – by reason of their common membership in the Hilltop Crips. Never before had prosecutors used Washington’s conspiracy law to whack a large street gang.
Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist makes a persuasive case for the gang-wide conspiracy charges. The Hilltop Crips is a criminal enterprise; nothing more, nothing less. Its members can’t disown its crimes.
If a small-time dope dealer belongs to the Crips, he profits from the violence committed by other Crips – they intimidate his rivals, secure his turf, etc. He benefits from their criminal activities and ought to bear some responsibility for them.
The Crips are among the nation’s most notorious gangs. They are famous for their violence and drug-dealing; they have worked hard to earn their image as trigger-happy gang-bangers.
People don’t join the Hilltop Crips just to have someone to hang out with on slow afternoons. They don’t join for the math tutoring. They don’t join because they like the youth minister and the sermons.
They join for one reason only: to be a part of the criminal enterprise.
The general conspiracy charge promises to be a grand deterrent to gang membership. Though it may not be critical to the Hilltop Crips case, police and prosecutors hope to employ it against other gangs terrorizing the streets of the South Sound.
But if Felnagle’s approach gets traction in the courts, it would deny law enforcement a powerful weapon against groups that are every bit as criminal – if not as successful – as the mafia.
We don’t deny the possibility that Felnagle has the law right; it’s his job to call the pitches whether the crowd’s going to cheer or not. If he is right, this is an opportunity for the Legislature to step in, strengthen the conspiracy law, and make sure the wannabes think long and hard before joining a criminal gang.