Justin Wiley should not wind up with a criminal record because he spends time in the Pinellas public housing complex where his grandmother and young son live. Yet the 22-year-old faces up to a year in jail on a trespassing charge because of an overly broad law aimed at street gangs. Pinellas law enforcement officials may be following the letter of the law, but legislators need to rewrite it so that innocent residents are not harassed and unfairly linked to the gangs that should be prosecuted.
As Tampa Bay Times staff writer Will Hobson reported Sunday, Wiley is caught in a guilt-by-association trap. The 1996 Criminal Street Gang Prevention Act defines gang "associate" and gang member using a list of criteria. Among them: being seen with gang members, using gang hand signs, having a gang tattoo, dressing like a gang member or even just having an informer say you're a gang member. Having a criminal record is not among the conditions.
Wiley has no criminal record, no gang tattoos and no history of violence. But sheriff's reports document he was seen with gang members several times and that he was listed as a gang associate. He was upgraded to a gang member in October because he fit two conditions in the law: associating with gang members and being observed with gang members at least four times. That is hardly enough evidence to stick someone with a gang label that is all but impossible to remove. Yet listed as a gang associate, Wiley was given a trespass warning at the public housing complex and months later arrested and charged with trespass after warning by the same sheriff's deputy.
Gang violence should be taken seriously by law enforcement. Neighborhoods in St. Petersburg and mid Pinellas have had more than their share of shootings and other criminal activity triggered by feuding gangs. But aggressive law enforcement should not amount to targeting everyone in a particular neighborhood where gangs operate. That net is too large and catches law-abiding residents who live in those same neighborhoods. It's curious that Largo police have lists of gang associates and gang members of more than 500 names while St. Petersburg's lists have just 323 names. And what does the Pinellas Sheriff's Office have to hide by refusing to release the number of names on its lists?
Legislators should change the law to narrow the definitions of gang associates and members. It should not be a crime to be seen in the neighborhood where your grandmother and son live. A law professor's suggestion that a criminal conviction should be required before formally labeling someone a gang member also is a good one. There also should be a formal procedure for appealing to remove names from the lists.
The issues are not unique to the mid Pinellas, predominantly black neighborhood of Ridgecrest, where Wiley was frequently stopped by a sheriff's deputy. The challenges include poverty, lack of services and high unemployment. But while gang violence should be aggressively pursued by law enforcement, so easily labeling young people as gang associates or gang members will not help low-income neighborhoods. It will make the situation worse.