Gang-Free Zone Prevents Brothers from Hanging Out

Gang injuction in Bryan, Texas, is raising eyebrows over civil rights.

Aug. 18, 2010 — -- A group of accused gang members in the small Houston suburb of Bryan, Texas say their civil liberties are being violated after authorities placed several restrictions on their cell phone use, where they can drive their cars and who they can socialize with.

"It ain't right what they're doing," said Alfonso Ponce, a 14-year-old who risks arrest if he associates with either of his two brothers, who are admitted members of the Latin Kings street gang.

"I ain't no gang member, people just think I am, and so now I can't have no phone, can't be out after 9 p.m. and can't hang out with my friends," Ponce said.

The district attorney's office in Brazos County Texas has listed Ponce along with 37 other alleged gang members in a civil injunction aimed at creating a gang-free zone.

Local authorities say gang-related crime has gotten so bad that they had to do whatever it took to try and stop it, in this case file a civil injunction targeting a group of young men they believe are responsible.

The injunction allows authorities to arrest Ponce or any of his 37 named co-defendants if they are spotted between 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. in a three-square-mile radius designated as the "Latin Kings Safety Zone."

Even Ponce admits that the area is rampant with crime. His house is littered with bullet wounds and there have been drive by shootings "about 20 times," he said. "They shoot at me a lot," he added.

Inside the safety zone defendants are barred from using cell phones inside their cars and cannot speak, walk, drive or even bike with people known to be associated with a criminal gang. Using hand signals known as gang signs as well and cursing inside the safety zone is also not allowed.

"In response to an escalation in violence in and around Bryan, we started to look for additional proactive measures that would allow us to respond to gang violence in a way that might not just be reactionary but might be able to stop the crimes before they happen," said Brazos County Assistant District Attorney Cory Crenshaw.

But those "proactive measures" of the injunction -- essentially giving police the authority to pick up individuals before they've even committed a crime -- are what some are calling a violation of rights and what Ponce says he thinks is unfair.

Several other states, such as California and Minnesota, as well as other counties in Texas, have similar gang injunction laws on the books.

"Our focus is stopping violent gang crime and in reducing the number of violent assaults," said Crenshaw. "If you can keep these individuals associated with gangs away from each other -- especially in vehicles -- it really does cut down on the chance of shootings."

Texas Town Creates 'Gang-Free Zone'

Despite Ponce's claims that he's not in any way associated with a gang, Crenshaw says the DA's office must meet several requirements to be able to place an injunction on an area and individuals and that it's not always easy to do.

"People say that what we're doing is just terrible and that we're just casting a net, but that's not the case," said Crenshaw. "I've got more than 50 Latin King members in Brazos county but only included some of those in the injunction. It's not because I didn't feel like bringing them all to court, but at the time they were the only ones we could, in good faith, include."

Under Texas state statute, the gang must be proven to be a "public nuisance" in order to be hit with an injunction. According to Crenshaw, a gang can be deemed a public nuisance if the group is linked to five or more crimes in a one-year period that are consistent with gang activity.

For individuals to be listed in an injunction, the DA must prove that they have several different factors that qualify them as gang members -- ranging from tattoos, to admissions, to consistently being seen with a gang. The individuals must also have been convicted or suspected of crimes consistent with gang activity.

All of the men listed in the injunction were offered the opportunity to respond, either by writing or appearing in court, to argue against their inclusion, according to Crenshaw. Those that did not were given a default judgment by the judge.

Crenshaw said that in the two months since police have been under instruction to pick up offenders of the restrictions, he has seen fewer crimes.

"Before the injunction, in order for these guys to get caught they'd have to go out there and do a crime, police would have to respond, get leads and investigate," said Crenshaw. "Now these individuals can be caught well before they can actually carry out the crime."

Four of the defendants named in the injunction have been arrested since police began to enforce it just after Mother's Day, when a gang-related crime in the area spurred the DA's office to actually push up the date to begin enforcing the restrictions.

Those who do get arrested face a misdemeanor charge and can go to jail for up to one year or have to pay a $4,000 fine, said Crenshaw, who added that many of the individuals that are picked up typically have outstanding arrest warrants.

Ponce Restricted from Associating with Brothers

Ponce told ABC News that it is unfair that he and his two brothers, who are also named in the injunction and who openly admit to being Latin Kings, can't associate with one another without risking arrest.

Ponce's 20-year-old brother Virgil was one of the first arrests made under the injunction, according to police. Christopher Ponce, Ponce's other brother, is currently serving time in a Texas prison for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

Ponce, who will enter eighth grade in the next few weeks, says he "doesn't like" the injunction because it prevents him from seeing his brothers.

"If I get caught [with my brother] I could go to jail," said Ponce. "I don't like being in there. It's boring, you do the same thing every day. The beds are bad."

Ponce served time once before for a fight that he said was provoked by others talking badly about his brother. Because Ponce is a juvenile, his record was not made available to ABC News.

"I mean they're trying to say I'm a King because I'm a brother [to Virgil]," said Ponce. "Now I gotta try to avoid getting seen by the cops."

Craig Greening, an Bryan attorney who is not representing Ponce or his brothers but is serving as a lawyer to 12 of the other defendants listed in the injunction, said that many of his clients are facing the same predicament.

"Family members aren't allowed to co-mingle with other persons in their family and a lot of the time with these gang injunctions, some people are members, some are associates, and they're all put in the injunction," said Greening. "What happens is that they can't all be together in that zone -- brothers and cousins can't be in the same area."

A 'Constitutional Right' to Family

"You have a constitutional right to be with your family, be in a family environment," said Greening. "I think there is also an issue of freedom of speech, to say that they can't wear certain clothing even if it's being done in a non-criminal way is far-reaching."

Crenshaw says he would be willing to meet with Ponce regarding his situation with his brothers but that Ponce never even showed up for his preliminary hearing.

"There have been other gang members within this injunction who are related to each other," he said. "And the ones who have come in and sat down with me I've been more than willing to accept terms to continue their family and blood relationships. I'm not trying to interfere with that."

"But If they don't show up then they'll just be subject to the restrictions," added Crenshaw.

"I understand there are some people out there who think these things may be going too far and don't like what we're doing, but again, we want to have a law-abiding, safe community, and in order to do that if we can have a proactive measure that allows our law enforcement to stop violent gang crimes before they occur, we're willing to do what we have to do to make that successful."

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