‘I am not a gang member’

Why West Sac’s ‘gang injunction’ failed

Jason Swearengin’s life changed when he left prison and rejoined his son in 2003.

Jason Swearengin’s life changed when he left prison and rejoined his son in 2003.

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

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Round up the hood!
West Sac police have put hundreds of citizens on a gang-suppression list. What if you’re not in a gang? Too bad.

Jason Swearengin was at work in a West Sacramento warehouse of a well-known supermarket when the police arrived.

They took him into a conference room and laid some photos out in front of him. “They told my boss I was a gang member. They showed me pictures of people I knew. People I grew up with and went to school with,” Swearengin told SN&R.

And they told him the new rules he’d have to live under as long as he stayed in West Sacramento. Don’t associate with the people in the pictures, all of them gang members, or any other gang members. Don’t be caught outside after 10 p.m. Don’t go into any public place that serves alcohol.

Step out of line, break any of the rules of the injunction, and he could be thrown in jail.

“I said ‘I’m not a gang member.’ I said, ‘None of this is true.’”

It didn’t matter that Swearengin said he wasn’t a gang member. It didn’t matter to the police or to the Yolo County district attorney. It didn’t matter to the judge who imposed the sweeping “gang injunction,” including a lifetime curfew on alleged gang members in a three-square mile swath of West Sacramento back in February of 2005.

“I started to feel like a prisoner in my own neighborhood.”

The injunction targeted Bryte and Broderick, two older and heavily Latino neighborhoods in West Sacramento, for law enforcement’s experiment in gang suppression.

Many people who live in Broderick say there are no “Broderick Boys,” at least not in the sense that police use it. Broderick and Bryte are neighborhoods where families go back for generations—to a time before the city of West Sacramento even existed. The police and DA and other Broderick residents say the Broderick Boys are a sophisticated street gang, even a “terrorist organization.”

Under the loose criteria used by the West Sacramento police and Yolo DA, hardened criminals and pot smokers, conspirators, and cousins—causal friends—could be lumped together as “Broderick Boys.”

Police are the first to say that one doesn’t have to commit any crime at all to be considered a Broderick Boy and be subject to gang suppression.

There certainly is crime in West Sacramento. Once, Swearengin was part of it.

He spent 15 months in prison for the sale of methamphetamine. He got his girlfriend pregnant shortly before he got sentenced.

But he said his life changed when he rejoined his son on the outside in 2003. “I was young and stupid. I just took a look at my life and said ‘normal people don’t make a living selling drugs,’” Swearengin, now 26, said.

When he first learned about the gang injunction, he just wanted to avoid any further trouble. But then it started to eat at him. “It was depressing. I felt like I paid my debt to society. But I was still being labeled a lower-tier citizen.”

By this time, the American Civil Liberties Union was preparing a lawsuit against the gang injunction, which it filed in August of 2005. Swearengin volunteered to join the suit, along with three other so-called Broderick Boys.

The ACLU argued that the injunction was unconstitutional because the individuals covered under the gang injunction weren’t given notice that the DA was seeking to impose the new rules, nor were they given an opportunity to challenge it or their alleged status as Broderick Boys in court.

Nor did the DA tell the mayor of West Sacramento or the City Council what was being planned. No notice was given in the local media. And despite boasting of having identified 350 Broderick Boys in West Sacramento, the DA only served one individual—Billy Wolfington, an alleged Broderick Boy who didn’t even live in West Sacramento at the time—with notice that the gang injunction was pending.

“If there had been proper notice, the state would have to provide clear and convincing evidence that they were gang members,” said Anne Brick, an attorney with ACLU who shepherded the complaint and the subsequent appeal against the gang injunction through the Yolo County Superior Court.

With the DA comparing the Broderick Boys to “terrorists” in the press, the West Sacramento political establishment, and many of its residents, went along.

Things only got weirder when, in December of 2005, Yolo County Superior Court Judge Thomas Warriner upheld the injunction.

Remember, all four of the parties in the ACLU’s suit denied that they were gang members. Judge Warriner reasoned that because they denied gang affiliation, they had no right to challenge the injunction in court.

It was a Catch-22, because the four still were subject to the curfew and other rules imposed by the injunction.

The court’s reasoning was bizarre and frustrating to Swearengin. “It just sounded ridiculous to me,” he said.

It turns out that it sounded ridiculous to the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals, as well. That court last week overturned the injunction, saying that Judge Warriner had missed the point.

“To say appellants have no standing to attack the injunction unless they incriminate themselves by admitting that they are gang members is not reasonable,” the court determined.

And the court agreed that by serving only one alleged gang member with notice of the injunction, the DA violated the due-process rights of anybody served with it, about 80 individuals. On Monday, April 23, the injunction was declared void.

District Attorney Jeff Reisig, who was the main architect of the gang injunction, did not return calls from SN&R for this story. Reisig was quoted in the Sacramento Bee last week saying that he would consult with the mayor and city before seeking another injunction—something he avoided in 2005.

For Swearengin, the gang injunction is just one more thing to put behind him.

“My past is my past. I’m responsible for my past. I just wish the DA had looked at me as an individual and had given me my day in court.”