People in Utah know that the state is not traditionally known for its criminal gang activity, but nonetheless police and prosecutors across the state are using controversial law enforcement tools to target members of certain ethnic groups they believe are tied to gang-related activities. In Salt Lake City, members of the close-knit Tongan community are increasingly becoming the target of law enforcement, often with deadly and life-shattering consequences.
The unlikely story made national news headlines last month when shots rang out in a federal courtroom during the trial of a man who was on trial for actions stemming from his alleged gang involvement. When it was all said and done, one man lay dead from a federal marshal’s bullet. Police in the area were warned to be ready for possible retaliation against law enforcement by gang members who may be seeking retribution, but when word of the bulletin got out, law-abiding members of the Tongan community were appalled that they were being profiled as potential committers of violent crimes.
The incident raises the stakes in what is already a tension-filled community, as prosecutors and law enforcement have used federal RICO laws to break up alleged gang activity in the area. Under the federal RICO laws, people who commit violent or nonviolent crimes may see tremendous increases in criminal penalties simply because of their alleged gang affiliation.
But advocates of the Tongan community and the many defendants claim that law enforcement is casting their net too far and misusing these federal laws against people to which they were never meant to apply. The result is fresh tension in the community and between law enforcement, hurting the community and imprisoning young men who should never have been charged under RICO statutes.
People who commit assault and other violent crimes should have to endure the consequences of their actions, but misusing federal laws to increase the sentence for these crimes is not a solution. These defendants are entitled to a zealous defense, and should be represented by competent criminal defense attorneys in their quest for justice.
Source: USA Today “Crips in Utah: Gang culture invades an unlikely turf,”: Kevin Johnson, May 26, 2014