N.C. gang law takes effect across state

By Ryan Seals
News & Record

GREENSBORO, N.C. — A new law goes into effect today designed to give law enforcement and prosecutors a set of ground rules for tackling the state's growing gang problem.

The N.C. Street Gang Suppression Act, passed by the General Assembly in July, addresses a number of issues related to gang membership, participation and recruitment, as well as strengthening penalties for related activity.

Local police say it gives them more authority to tackle gang problems, while a local prosecutor believes the law is too complex and legislators aren't doing enough to prevent teens from joining gangs in the first place.

The law is the state's first to define a street gang, and it makes membership against the law.

It also prohibits the recruitment of gang members, threatening gang members who are attempting to withdraw and threats of punishment or retaliation toward withdrawn members.

It also gives law enforcement and government the authority to seize property associated with gang activity.

Most of the crimes listed in the act are felony offenses, punishable by 10 to 20 years in prison, a fine or both.

Capt. John Wolfe, head of the Greensboro Police Department's Investigative Support Division, which includes the department's gang squad, said the new law addresses many issues that have been obstacles to law enforcement.

"My first impression is 'What's not to like?' (The law) begins to identify and define behaviors associated with criminal street gangs," Wolfe said.

"These behaviors alone in most cases are not illegal - however, this act clearly states that if you are involved in these specific behaviors and particular circumstances exist, you are in violation, which makes it a prosecutable offense."

The law defines gangs as "any ongoing organization, association, or group of three or more persons" that has a primary activity of committing felony acts, has members involved in gang activity and has a common name, identifying sign or symbol.

Assistant District Attorney Howard Neumann said though the law has good intentions, it doesn't do enough to address gang recruitment efforts and he doesn't believe it will make cases easier to prosecute.

"When (legislators) want to address a problem, it seems that instead of getting more police on the street or more prosecutors, they pass legislation. They make more laws instead of putting some teeth into enforcement," Neumann said.

"I think they make something against the law and think it won't happen anymore. Really that doesn't make a bit of difference."

The law also has a lot of confusing language that likely will have to be addressed by appellate courts, Neumann said. It also leaves the door open for challenges to the constitutional right of freedom of association.

"That's going to be something to watch to see how it's challenged in courts," he said. "I don't think (the law) is the greatest thing since sliced bread."

State representatives who sponsored the bill did not return messages seeking comment.

James C. Howell, a senior research associate with the National Youth Gang Center, said the legislation's impact will depend on the state's overall commitment to gang intervention, suppression and prevention efforts.

"It's a three-pronged approach. If it's used in coordinated county efforts, some headway can be made," Howell said.

"That will bring everyone to the table and each community can define their gang problem and define the solutions they want to implement."

Copyright 2008 News & Record

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