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Police gang lists can have life-long impacts and are questioned by legal experts

LARGO — Justin Wiley didn't understand why Pinellas County sheriff's Deputy John Syers was so interested in him.

Unlike many of his friends, Wiley had never been arrested. He'd never even gotten a speeding ticket. But in the summer of 2011, it seemed the 21-year-old black man couldn't cross the street without the white deputy pulling over and asking him what he was doing.

May 20: Syers stopped Wiley and some friends outside a convenience store for "loitering," a report said.

July 20: Syers again saw Wiley with friends, some of whom had criminal records. Syers checked to see if any had open arrest warrants, then filed a report on who he saw Wiley with that day.

Aug. 7: Wiley was talking to a friend who had just gotten out of prison. Syers pulled over and asked what they were doing. He ran their names for warrants, found none and left.

The next day, Wiley and another friend were walking through a public housing complex where Wiley's grandmother lives. Syers stopped them.

You're a documented gang associate, Syers told Wiley, according to a report. You're a threat to the public safety of this area.

Syers gave Wiley a trespass warning, barring him from returning to the complex he'd hung out in since he was a little boy. He pushed up Wiley's sleeves to look for gang tattoos, Wiley said, and took photographs of him from different angles. Then he let Wiley go.

To friends and family, Justin Wiley's story is an example of racial profiling.

To law enforcement officials, the story is an example of a deputy collecting gang intelligence.

Without Wiley's knowledge, his name had been put on a little-known list of gang members and associates maintained by the Sheriff's Office and authorized under state law. Being on a gang list subjects Wiley to special scrutiny and, if he's ever arrested, potentially harsher treatment.

Syers was just following the law, officials say.

And that's true. What happened to Justin Wiley could happen anywhere in Florida.

• • •

Wiley's encounters with Syers happened in Ridgecrest, a predominantly black neighborhood west of Largo. It has lots of churches, a great barbecue joint and, according to law enforcement, a gang: the Young Souljas, also known as the 119 Boyz, named for Ridgecrest's main road, 119th Street. They sell drugs, fight with other gangs and wear black. The Sheriff's Office and Largo Police Department say they've tracked Young Souljas activity since 2008.

A few months ago, a list of more than 120 alleged Young Souljas members and associates began circulating among residents of Ridgecrest. It was one of many "no contact" lists the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office give alleged gang members at court hearings. They are told to avoid everyone on the list as a requirement of their probation.

There are violent criminals on the list. There are also people with no criminal records, like Wiley. The list inflamed racial tensions in an area that has a complicated relationship with law enforcement.

With emotions running high, 50 people attended a meeting in Ridgecrest in August to complain about the gang list. John Boyd, Wiley's uncle, spoke on behalf of residents.

"They're using it to railroad these kids into the prison system," said Boyd, 40. "They have no faith in these kids. If they're hanging out, they're automatically labeled criminals."

Sheriff's Detective Brandon Harvey explained to the group how names get on the lists. His explanation did not go over well.

"I didn't write the law," Harvey said as residents shouted at him. "If you're hanging out with someone who commits criminal acts, then those are the consequences."

• • •

Born to a family of talkers, Wiley is the quiet one, relatives said. They can't remember him ever getting into a fight. He says he did, once, in middle school when a kid threw a drink on him.

Wiley is now 22 but could pass for a teenager. He has a 6-month-old son, a high school diploma, and thinks he might want to be a barber. He hasn't worked since he lost a job as a busboy in February.

His uncle Boyd admits Wiley isn't as motivated as his family would like. But he's not a criminal. And Wiley flatly denies he's in any gang.

"It just makes you wonder," Boyd said, "how many kids on this list has this happened to?"

• • •

In 1995, about 20 gang members beat a 17-year-old boy nearly to death in upscale Boca Raton on Florida's east coast. A public outcry prompted legislators to rewrite state law so police could better track gang activity and keep gang members who broke the law behind bars longer. The Criminal Street Gang Prevention Act of 1996 established the definition of "gang member" authorities use today.

There are 11 criteria in the law. If you meet one, state law labels you a gang "associate." Meet two, you're labeled a gang member. Among the criteria: being seen with gang members, dressing like a gang member, using a gang hand sign, having a gang tattoo, an informer saying you're a gang member.

Before 1996, the law had an additional one: a criminal record. The amended law eliminated it. If police think you look like a gang member, according to state law, you are one.

Law enforcement officials argue that even if people are wrongly added to gang lists, it only matters if they break the law. Some experts disagree. Police pay closer attention to you once you're on a list, they said. You're more likely to get stopped and searched, or arrested for a minor infraction. Once arrested, you could face higher bail, tougher prosecution and a longer sentence.

"It affects every type of treatment from beginning to end (in the criminal justice system)," said K. Babe Howell, a professor at CUNY School of Law who has studied gang databases across the country. "It's kind of insane."

• • •

Deputy John Syers, 41, declined to comment for this story. He has the personnel file of a consummate professional. He's a Tampa native and U.S. Army veteran who started at the Pinellas Sheriff's Office in 1999. In 2007, Syers took a class: "Criminal Street Gangs Investigations." It taught how to spot gang members.

When asked why Justin Wiley is on a gang list, Pinellas sheriff's Sgt. David DiSano said, "We'll let the reports speak for themselves."

The reports say Wiley was seen with gang members on July 24, 2010, and the next year on May 20, July 20, Aug. 7 and Aug. 8. The reports say the Sheriff's Office listed Wiley as a gang associate in May 2011, then upgraded him to a gang member in October because he fit two of the state's criteria: associating with gang members and being observed with gang members four or more times.

The reports don't say that many of the alleged gang members and associates Wiley was seen with were guys he has known since childhood. One is his cousin. Another is Alexander Woods, a 56-year-old self-described "drinker" who spends his days riding around Ridgecrest on a bike he calls "Skippy." Woods has a record of mostly minor offenses, including a 1999 DUI, but he adamantly denies associating with gang members.

"The only gang I know," Woods said, "is Kool and the Gang."

• • •

Law enforcement agencies throughout Florida keep gang lists, including in the Tampa Bay area.

The lists kept by the Largo police have more than 500 names. St. Petersburg's lists have 323 names. The Pinellas Sheriff's Office declined to release its numbers, but cited a 2011 Florida Attorney General's Office survey that said Pinellas has 27 gangs with 885 members and associates.

The region's gang problems don't rival those of other urban areas, but some national gangs have a local presence. Tampa Bay's gangs are mostly hybrid street gangs — neighborhood crews that sell drugs and fight over turf.

Ignored, hybrid gangs expand and get more violent, said Mike Fabyanic, a Tampa-based special agent with Homeland Security Investigations. He praised local law enforcement for keeping gangs in check and for building good databases of gang members and associates.

But other experts say those databases are based on faulty law and probably include people not connected to gangs.

"When you use demanding criteria, it can be a useful law enforcement tool. But it's also a tool that is easily misused," said Vincent Webb, director of Sam Houston State University's Criminal Justice Center. "There's something about the whole notion of gangs that, to a certain extent, the Constitution almost goes out the door."

Randall Marshall, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, agrees.

"It certainly raises First Amendment concerns of guilt by association without any evidence of criminal intent or criminal wrongdoing," he said.

Florida's law doesn't address removing names from gang lists. According to state law, once a gang member, always a gang member. The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office tells local agencies to delete a name after three years without "contact" with law enforcement. But contact can easily be initiated by law enforcement and, as Wiley's case shows, doesn't require criminal wrongdoing.

Experts contacted by the Tampa Bay Times were most critical of the "no contact" lists, which caused the controversy in Ridgecrest. Assistant State Attorney Susan St. John said Pinellas-Pasco is the only office she knows that uses "no contact" lists, but she supports the policy.

"If you do stay away from the people on the list . . . the likelihood of successfully completing probation goes up substantially," she said.

Ridgecrest residents say it's difficult to avoid 120 people in their small, close-knit neighborhood. Meanwhile, experts said, the lists could get to rival gangs or out into the community to potential employers.

"That's shocking," said Charles Katz, director of Arizona State University's Center for Violence Prevention & Community Safety. "I've never heard of such a thing."

• • •

Months passed after Syers barred Wiley from returning to the Rainbow Village public housing complex. Wiley never received any official paperwork, so he thought maybe Syers just gave him a warning.

He went back. He visited his grandmother. He hung out with a girl there. She gave birth to their son, Kingston, in February. Other deputies drove by Wiley, but didn't give him any trouble.

Then he ran into Syers again.

In May, Wiley was in Rainbow Village with a friend who had just come home from college. Syers pulled up and arrested Wiley for trespass after warning, a misdemeanor.

Edith Golden, Wiley's grandmother, walked out her apartment to see her grandson in handcuffs.

When asked later about the Young Souljas, Golden, who has lived in the Ridgecrest area for all of her 68 years, snorted.

"Ain't no gangs around here," she said.

• • •

When people say there aren't gangs here, police respond with stories like this:

Last Nov. 3, Largo officers found several members of the 104th Street Bloods, a predominantly white Largo area gang, in an apartment with a lot of marijuana and a loaded .38-caliber gun. There were pry marks on the door from Young Souljas trying to break in, according to police. The two gangs are rivals, and the apartment complex had been Young Souljas territory.

Law enforcement officials have little sympathy for Wiley.

"I'm more sorry for the people who have to live in fear in their own homes because of gang activity," said Susan St. John, the assistant state attorney. "If your friends are committing crimes, or are hanging out with guys who commit crimes, then maybe you need to pick new friends."

St. John wouldn't say whether she thought the state law could be improved. But Babe Howell, the law professor, had two recommendations for Florida:

• Add a conviction requirement to the definition of gang member. This lessened the disproportionate representation of minorities on gang lists in other states, she said.

• Don't use law enforcement's gang intelligence in court for setting bails or enhancing sentences. The criteria are too arbitrary, Howell said, and make it too easy for young men in areas with gang problems to get incorrectly listed as gang members.

But it's not up to Howell to change the law, it's up to the Florida Legislature. And, as Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge J. Thomas McGrady said, "My guess is that gangs don't have a good lobby."

• • •

Last month, Justin Wiley stood before a judge on his trespassing charge. Before the hearing, his public defender told him the prosecutor had offered pretrial intervention: Wiley would get community service and a $500 fine, and if he didn't get into trouble for a few months, the State Attorney's Office would drop the charge.

The judge explained what Wiley risked if he didn't take a deal: He could spend up to a year in jail.

The judge asked Wiley for his plea. He answered calmly, like he'd never considered saying anything else.

"Not guilty."

Times researchers Natalie Watson and Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or

Police gang lists can have life-long impacts and are questioned by legal experts 09/15/12 [Last modified: Saturday, September 15, 2012 10:12pm]
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