Prosecutors Overreach in RICO Gang Arrests

“Bronx 120” supporters rally in front of the United States Courthouse at 500 Pearl Street in Manhattan, October 2016.
“Bronx 120” supporters rally in front of the United States Courthouse at 500 Pearl Street in Manhattan, October 2016.

By Heidi Boghosian and Zachary Wolfe

What will Donald Trump's inaugural pledge to stop “American carnage” mean in the context of longstanding abusive police practices and growing mainstream public critiques? Faced with mounting social challenges, police authorities have begun to redirect their focus to groups of individuals that can be labeled as street gangs, a label that for many strips away concern for individualized justice.

It's easy to feel relieved when local police and the feds announce large-scale gang arrests. Just the word “gang” conjures shootings, drug trade and inciting fear. But prosecutors across the nation are going too far in their zeal to curb gang violence. Using broad conspiracy charges, they arrest and charge groups of young men in public housing complexes with not only gang affiliation, but gang proximity. New York—and specifically the Bronx—has joined several cities in using RICO (Racketeer and Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act) laws designed for powerful mobs with sophisticated structures, to track young men on social media, identify their friends, and label that group a criminal enterprise. It's much easier to charge individuals for being part of a group rather than investigating individuals.

In a 2016 Bronx public housing raid, New York police characterized alleged gang members as “the epitome of organized crime today.”

Community members question this portrayal, which seems designed to fuel public fears. They say the young men were not highly organized gangsters terrorizing a community; they lacked money and weapons and lived at home with their parents. It is almost certain that some of those arrested in these raids—which unquestionably are a blunt instrument—are innocent, and more are innocent of the severe crimes RICO should be reserved for. A year after some 120 individuals, now known as the Bronx 120, were swept up in that single Bronx raid, they are still seeking a semblance of justice.

Individuals caught up in such tactics have little legal recourse. Unable to afford experienced defense attorneys, most are detained in deplorable conditions. Some are held in solitary confinement. Others are not allowed to see their families. Few can afford bail in cases that can take years—missing the chance to work or support their families, actions a judge may consider favorably. Facing lengthy sentences, many plead guilty or testify against friends and neighbors to avoid decades in prison.

For those raised in comparatively low-crime neighborhoods, it is difficult to imagine what it would be like to experience massive police raids and the powerlessness that comes from facing or watching friends and loved ones in these circumstances. But for kids who grow up in this reality, it is not hard to imagine how their sobering experiences shape their view of the criminal justice system. And that must inform our understanding of why Walter Scott ran from the officer who would shoot him in the back, why Eric Garner told the officer who would soon kill him to get his hands off him, why Sandra Bland did not immediately get out of her car and submit to arrest, and why other victims of police shootings did not comply with an officer’s command, reasonable or not, relying on the judicial system to respect and vindicate their rights later.

Bringing RICO charges against teens and young adults—whose minds are not fully formed—results in more being treated like hardened criminals. It destroys families and leads to the eviction of some from public housing. It teaches community members that encounters with the police inevitably lead to being overwhelmed by a heavy-handed system within which they cannot possibly achieve justice.

Under Trump's Department of Justice, we can expect more RICO prosecutions of young men, pretending they’re part of a well-organized business. This is just one example of the kind of tactics that will further incarcerate African Americans and Latinos, exacerbate racial and socio-economic injustices, and undermine faith in and the legitimacy of our institutions.

Heidi Boghosian is a New York attorney. Zachary Wolfe is an attorney, author, and professor at George Washington University in Washington DC.

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