Sunday, February 6, 2011

Oakland court clears lawyers to handle gang case

A team of lawyers with ties to Oakland City Hall can represent young men accused in a city lawsuit of being gang members, a judge said Thursday.

City Attorney John Russo is seeking a civil gang injunction against 40 men, saying they are Norteño members who terrorize the Fruitvale neighborhood by dealing drugs and battling rivals. He wants to put the men under a curfew and bar them from hanging out together inside a 2-square-mile zone. Violations could mean as much as six months in jail.

Russo's office sought to remove defense lawyers from the firm Siegel and Yee, because Oakland City Councilwoman Jane Brunner works there and because the head of the firm, Dan Siegel, is an unpaid adviser to Mayor Jean Quan.

The dispute has widened a rift between two of the city's most powerful officials, Russo and Quan, even though the city attorney represents the mayor's legal interests.

At a hearing in Alameda County Superior Court, Judge Robert Freedman said the lawyers seeking to represent the alleged gang members had placed a "firewall" between their work and the city's actions. He noted that Brunner had promised to recuse herself from any decision related to the proposed injunction.

The ruling buoyed the 14 defendants who sat in the first two rows of Freedman's courtroom in Oakland - two of whom used canes to walk because of gunshot wounds. Many say they are not gang members, having put past troubles behind them, and would be unfairly punished by the injunction.

Now, the team of attorneys - who include Siegel's son and employee, Michael Siegel - will seek to represent all the men covered by the proposed injunction, including several who are behind bars.

Defendants covered by injunctions in other cities around the state have often struggled to hire lawyers. Criminal defendants have a right to an attorney, even if they can't afford one, but there is no such provision in civil court.

"I was pretty excited about that," defendant Michael Muscadine, 24, said of the ruling. The attorneys "stepped up from day one. If they weren't here, I don't know where I would have turned to."

The city is scheduled to ask for a preliminary injunction at a hearing Feb. 16, although that date is also in contention. Michael Siegel said his team needed more time to prepare, but Deputy City Attorney Rocio Fierro said Fruitvale residents should not have to wait for protection.

"We want the people of Oakland to have their day in court," Fierro said.

The legal battle, along with the case itself, has stirred up strong emotions.

Some activists at Thursday's hearing said the injunction unfairly singles out Latino men who grew up in difficult circumstances.

Fierro suggested that the activists were standing up for the men's "criminal interests."

Complicating matters, attorneys for the city told the judge that the City Council had the authority to force Russo to drop the lawsuit. It's not clear how the council would vote on that question.

At City Hall on Thursday, Quan said she was frustrated that the council had not weighed in on the Fruitvale injunction or a previous one that a judge approved in the northern part of the city. She said such a court order may be effective in the short term, but asked, "Does it make sense to have the entire Fruitvale district off-limits?"

Quan said she would sit down next week with Police Chief Anthony Batts - or his successor, if he leaves - to discuss whether the injunctions are a valuable tool for officers.

By Demian Bulwa and Matthai Kuruvila, and

Source: San Francisco Chronicle

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