Judge says Oakland law firm can represent injunction defendants
on February 4, 2011
A judge said Thursday that he would allow members of a law firm where an Oakland city councilwoman is a partner to represent alleged gang members named in an injunction proposed for the Fruitvale area.
Oakland City Attorney John Russo’s office had sought to bar lawyers from the firm Siegel and Yee from representing those named in the injunction, saying it would create a conflict of interest for Councilwoman Jane Brunner, who works there, and because the head of the firm, Dan Siegel, is an unpaid adviser to Mayor Jean Quan.
At Thursday’s hearing in front of a full audience at the Rene C. Davidson Courthouse, 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. Specifically, Freedman noted that Brunner, a member of the city’s finance committee, had promised to recuse herself from any decision related to the proposed injunction.
A team of Siegel and Yee attorneys including Jose Luis Fuentes and Michael Siegel (who is Dan Siegel’s son), as well as independent Bay Area attorneys Dennis Cunningham, Yolanda Huang and Jeff Wozniak, may soon represent pro bono as many as 30 of the 40 defendants named in the injunction. At Thursday’s hearing, 14 of the defendants sat in the first two rows of the courtroom. People named in the injunction have the right to go through an “opt out” process—or be removed from the injunction—if they can prove that they are not affiliated with a gang, are maintaining their employment and are in good standing in their community.
However, on Thursday Judge Freedman said that a civil rights group formed in December by Fuentes and Michael Siegel called Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ) could not represent the gang injunction defendants. The group applied for nonprofit status in December but has not yet received it.
Siegel and Fuentes also asked that the state waive the 40 defendants’ $900 in filing fees and appoint lawyers to each of the defendants, who currently have no official legal representation. Injunction opponents have previously complained that although being named in an injunction can result in jail time, defendants are not offered the services of a court-ordered attorney as they would if charged in a criminal case.
Freedman declined to compel the state to appoint attorneys to the defendants, saying there is no existing case or law that gives him the authority to make such an order. “The Court does not have a checkbook,” he said. However, Freedman said that pro bono counsel, like that offered by Siegel and Yee, would be accessible to the defendants.
The judge has so far waived filing fees for 23 of the defendants.
The hour-long hearing ended with smiles and handshakes among those who oppose the injunction. “Without an attorney, it would be very hard for the defendants to challenge the allegations,” Michael Siegel said. “In sum, the hearing guaranteed the defendants’ right to a fair trial. That, in itself, represents a level of justice.”
The next major hearing in the case is scheduled for February 16, at which Judge Freedman may decide whether or not to approve the proposed Fruitvale injunction. At this hearing, the City Attorney’s Office must make its case that the 40 people named in the injunction are members of the Norteno street gang. The City Attorney’s Office is preparing by asking dozens of Oakland police officers to assemble evidence documenting the alleged gang activity of the defendants.
In his petition for an injunction, which he filed in October, City Attorney John Russo called the Nortenos “one of the most destructive, vicious and sociopathic criminal organizations in Oakland, not just for years, but literally for generations.” Oakland police said there are at least 400 Norteno gang members in Oakland and that members of the gang were involved in at least 35 shootings in 2010.
If Freedman approves the City Attorney’s petition for a gang injunction in the Fruitvale neighborhood, it would be the city’s second. Similar to the North Oakland gang injunction that was approved in June, 2010, the 40 alleged Norteno gang members named in the Fruitvale injunction would not be allowed to congregate in groups, carry guns, wear certain colors and would be subject to a curfew within a “safety zone.”
Now that Freedman has given them the green light to represent those named in the injunction, Siegel and Yee attorneys would have to appear at the February 16 hearing on behalf of those defendants. Attorney Jeff Wozniak, who will be working with the firm, said he and his legal team recently filed hundreds of declarations on behalf of the defendants from their family members, employers and people in the community that he said will prove they are not involved in gang activity. “We are giving them a voice against all of the allegations—many of which are dated many years back—claiming that these guys are active gang members,” he said.
Injunction opponents have pushed for the February 16 hearing to be delayed until after the City Attorney’s Office releases a report on February 22 that will examine the cost and effectiveness of gang injunctions.
Last week, opponents of the injunction rallied in front of City Hall, and argued that gang injunctions use policing as a way to address social problems instead of investing in programs for youth, jobs that pay living wages and affordable housing.
“Unfortunately the Fruitvale has become a victim of John Russo’s attempt to raise his political profile and most likely seek another office from the press and the media he gets on the back of the 40 individuals who are named in this injunction,” said Wozniak.
“We’re glad that the judge decided on all of these motions,” said Alex Katz, spokesman for the City Attorney’s Office. “The Fruitvale community deserves to have their day in court.”
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