Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri recognizes that Florida's gang prevention law defines gang membership so broadly that people can be unfairly designated as gang members and ultimately treated more harshly by the criminal justice system. Now he and other local law enforcement officers are calling for change. That is progress.
Florida's gang identification system came to light earlier this year when parents in Largo understandably complained that it cast too wide a net. The Tampa Bay Times’ Will Hobson highlighted the story of Justin Wiley, 22, who had been charged with trespass stemming from his wrongful inclusion on the list. His case demonstrates what can happen when an overbroad law is reflexively applied.
Gualtieri and other members of the Pinellas Police Standards Council said last week they will look to change the system that wrongly ensnared Wiley. Among the promising ideas: Consolidate all local databases of gang affiliations countywide; establish an appeals process so people can challenge their gang designation; and, most importantly, only enter people into the database if there is credible and substantial evidence of gang-related criminal activity, such as a prior criminal conviction. Had this been the rule, Wiley would not have been unfairly labeled a danger to society.
Wiley is not part of a street gang, but after deputies saw him associating with gang members, he was designated as one. Under the law, young men like Wiley can end up in a database of suspected gang associates or members even if they have no criminal record, no known gang activity and no gang tattoos. State law lists 11 criteria. If a person meets one of those criteria he is considered a criminal gang associate. If he meets two, he is a criminal gang member. These include being observed in the company of gang members four or more times, associating with a gang member or dressing in the style of a gang, among others. They are the kinds of activities that a young man in a poor neighborhood may find almost impossible to avoid.
The Legislature should tighten this law, but until then Pinellas County officials should change their own procedures so men like Wiley don't lose their future to false assumptions.