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By David Kibbe
Standard-Times staff writer
September 10, 2008 6:00 AM

BOSTON - Looking for new ways to combat gang violence, the state Legislature is considering a proposal that would ban gang members from gathering on neighborhood street corners and in parks.
The legislation, filed by Rep. Eugene L. O'Flaherty, D-Chelsea, would allow prosecutors to seek civil court injunctions to forbid known gang members from standing or even walking in designated "safety zones." Anyone who broke the law would be subject to fines and up to one year in jail.
Proponents say the idea is working in large cities around the country. The Massachusetts proposal is based on California law.
Rep. O'Flaherty, House chairman of the Judiciary Committee, could not be reached for comment. He said in the spring that he filed the bill at the request of constituents who were afraid to walk by street corners frequented by gang members. The bill did not get out of the House Ways and Means Committee this year but is expected to resurface when the Legislature returns to formal session in January.
The notion of allowing such injunctions has drawn warnings from civil libertarians that it is unconstitutional and could unfairly target innocent people.
It is drawing interest in SouthCoast.
"It is obvious that we need to be much more aggressive in this battle against street gangs," Bristol County District Attorney C. Samuel Sutter said in a statement released by his office. "New legislation is one vital part of this approach."
Mr. Sutter said the bill "looks very promising. Based upon my review of it so far, I wholeheartedly endorse it."
The bill is supported by Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O'Keefe and Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett. The Boston Police Detectives Benevolent Society also has signed on to the bill.
Rep. Stephen R. Canessa, D-New Bedford, who has backed new laws and community funding to fight gang violence, said he thinks the bill, which was filed late in this year's now-expired session, will get more attention next year.
Rep. Canessa spoke to Rep. O'Flaherty about the bill and called it "an interesting idea."
"I think it's something we certainly need to look into a little bit further and see if it's something that can help our communities address the issue of gang violence they are having," Rep. Canessa said.
"I think the one challenging piece to it is how do you define gang members, and how do you determine someone is in a gang?" Rep. Canessa said. "Sometimes there isn't a definite yes or no to that. Could a group of schoolchildren hanging out at a playground or a basketball court be considered a gang? I think there's a gray area to that."
Gangs would be defined as known criminal organizations or associations that have three or more members.
Cities including Los Angeles; Fort Worth, Texas; and San Diego have used injunctions to stop gang members from gathering in public places.
The legislation would forbid known gang members from gathering in the safety zones, and police could order them to leave. Legal challenges to injunctions would have to be heard within 10 days. The Massachusetts proposal would make exceptions for gang members attending church or school.
John Reinstein, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said enforcement of an injunction could end up violating the rights of people who are doing nothing illegal. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the right of people to gather in public places.
"That's what has led community groups, even those who are concerned about the gang loitering issue, to raise serious questions about it," he said.
Mr. Reinstein also said it would have another unintended consequence: "a substantial diversion of resources from law enforcement" to get the court-ordered civil injunctions in place.
"They go too far in an effort to deal with, by and large, a criminal problem," he said.
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