A Superior Court judge will begin hearing evidence Wednesday to determine whether Oakland shall begin enforcing an injunction against 39 alleged members of the Norteno gang.
If granted, the injunction would place restrictions, including association limits and curfews, on the named individuals inside a two-square-mile area in Oakland’s Fruitvale district.
The effort, as elsewhere, has sparked an intense and lengthy ideological debate in Oakland. City Attorney John Russo calls the injunction a tool to combat violent gang activity, while a growing opposition says the injunction violates civil rights and are ineffective at combating violent crime. Both Judge Robert Freedman and defense attorneys indicated the upcoming hearing is likely to continue past Wednesday, possibly resulting in a trial for a permanent injunction in November.
A motley and enthusiastic crew of five lawyers, included famed civil rights attorney Dennis Cunningham, now represent 30 of the defendants, including 10 who are currently behind bars. At a case management hearing Monday, Freedman ordered the defense to whittle down its list of 36 witnesses to five, and the defense continued to mount various arguments in support of delaying Wednesday’s hearing, including needing more time to file paperwork, reach all of the defendants and even fix a broken hearing aid.
Freedman was patient, if sometimes abrupt, while trying to solidify plans for Wednesday’s 2 p.m. hearing.
Cunningham, who sued over the death of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in Chicago, argued the lawyers had not yet filed or received fee waivers for many of the defendants, and that the group needed more time to parse the reams of evidence. As Cunningham began to argue the broader implications of the injunction, Freedman cut him off.
“Mr. Cunningham, you’re getting ahead of the curve,” he said. “I’m trying to talk in very practical terms about how we’re going to proceed on Wednesday. We don’t want another Sacramento,” he added, referring to hearings about a gang injunction in the capital city that lasted five months.
A newcomer, attorney Dennis Roberts also argued that he needed more time to familiarize himself with the case. He appeared on behalf of the Eastside Arts Alliance, a Fruitvale-based organization that does community outreach, and other “interveners,” groups who are not party to the suit but claim to be harmed by it. He said the injunction would interfere with his organization's ability to reach those in need of services.
After Freedman rejected his argument to push the hearing date back, Roberts launched into an explanation about his broken hearing aid.
“It takes three months to get an appointment with these people. If I miss this appointment, I’m going to essentially be deaf,” he said. “Can we just start on the 12th?”
“No,” Freedman said quickly, prompting laughter from the courtroom. “I don’t mean this in a bad way…the court does have listening devices which are basically hearing aids on steroids.”
The defense team has grown in size and cache, but the attorneys remain disorganized. After a legal snafu over representation resulted in a default judgment against all but one defendant, Meyers Nave, the firm hired by the city to work on the case, agreed to set aside the judgments, allowing the defendants an opportunity to challenge the charges against them. On Monday, the hired attorneys urged the group to appoint a lead counsel and determine how the long list of defendants would be split among them.
On Wednesday, defense attorney Michael Siegel said they plan to call Berkeley law professor Barry Krisberg, Oakland police detective Douglas Keely and three defendants. They plan to focus their argument on a two-year statute of limitations on public nuisance suits and demand that only individuals with records of criminal activity within the last two years be considered for the injunction.
They also plan to contest much of the city’s proposed evidence, including records from prison and jails that note some of the defendants’ gang affiliations. Defense attorney Jeff Wozniak said inmates are often placed into certain dormitories based on their origin for safety reasons, not necessarily because of gang membership.
“If you’re born north of Bakersfield and you’re Mexican, you’re going to go into the Norteno section,” he said.
Oakland police say the Nortenos are one of the biggest, most organized and violent criminal gangs in the city. According to a report prepared for a Feb. 22 public safety committee meeting, at least 13 of the 40 named defendants have been arrested since Russo first filed for the injunction in October.
Russo said it’s tricky to measure the effectiveness of injunctions, but noted that in the first six months of the injunction in North Oakland, drug activity dropped almost 70 percent, and only one defendant was arrested inside the safety zone. While some crimes increased, there have been no reported violations of the injunction.
But as the legal challenges and hearings continue, critics say they’re weary of the mixed results and disturbed by the amount of money the city attorney’s office has spent on the two injunction cases.
According to the report, the city has spent about $750,000 on the two cases.
Drawing on funds from the city attorney’s existing litigation budget, the city has spent about $40,000 on outside counsel in the Nortenos' case and about $55,000 on the North Side Oakland case.
In-house staff time amounted to $172,000 for the North Side Oakland case and $172,514 for the Nortenos case. In addition to staff time, the city attorney’s office has spent about $64,000 on the North Side Oakland case and about $41,000 on the Nortenos case, with about $10,000 in additional costs, according to the report. In-house police work amounted to about $200,000.