Last week, Detective Villanueva, considered an expert on gangs, testified. Deputy DA Ryan Couzens created a PowerPoint in which each defendant in the gang injunction case had his own page, and Detective Villanueva offered his “expert” opinion that each of them were gang members and represented a public nuisance to the City of West Sacramento and the residents of the safety zone.
The reason for this is that many of these individuals in jail or prison are identified as Nortenos because they are Hispanics from Northern California, and therefore the system itself designates them with a certain gang label in order to preserve a measure of safety in a prison setting.
Some of the self-admissions were based on discussions with other police officers, that would need to be verified in order for them to have much merit in a trial.
Another key question raised by the defense is whether Detective Villanueva, clearly an expert on gangs, could also render expert opinions on the psychological impact of these gang members on the residents of the safety zone. Mr. Villanueva was repeatedly asked about the impact on the residents, and the defense objected that this was beyond the scope of his expertise. Judge White has not ruled on that point, as of yet.
The slide show was supposed to be used only for demonstration and clarification purposes, and DDA Couzens refused to submit it into evidence as an official exhibit.
Defense attorneys repeatedly objected to the material presented and objected to its use because it seemed that Detective Villanueva was not testifying from his own base of knowledge, but rather simply relying on the material, to speak from it. It became rather apparent however, that Mr. Villanueva was not relying on the slide show for recollection, but rather as a script to direct his testimony.
A key question will be how useful is an expert such as Joe Villanueva to tie everything together for the defense.
Detective Villanueva did offer a lengthy explanation, both of how one becomes a gang member as well as the history of the Norteno Gang. He told the court that the gang was created during the years of 1958 to 1963, emerging as a rival against the Mexican Mafia and the Surenos in California prisons.
Bakersfield marks the boundary between the Northern Norteno gang and the Southern Sureno gang.
This would have been a nice lead-in witness to introduce their case, but it is unclear at this point just how much he ties everything together for the plaintiffs.
The limits of Detective Villanueva’s testimony can be seen in one of the questions from DDA Couzens who asked him if the Broderick Boys Gang still presents a nuisance in West Sacramento. While Detective Villanueva acknowledged that he has not worked there for nearly three years, he said he does keep in touch and follows the gang activity from Fairfield.
He rendered the opinion that yes, the gang still presents nuisance in West Sacramento.
He was also asked if he noticed a difference in gang activity after the first injunction was put in effect in West Sacramento. Detective Villanueva said he was an investigator for the DA’s Office after the first injunction in this trial and he was aware of the effects it had. According to him, he noticed a large reduction in crime and of association in public places, and reduced self admissions.
The cross examination began on Friday but will continue this Wednesday. While Detective Villanueva made several of the key points he had to make in order to sustain the gang injunction, there are several questions that he left open that need to be addressed, particularly in light of the fact that Detective Villanueva’s firsthand knowledge on the ground essentially ended three years ago.
First, there is a presumption that once a gang member always a gang member. That appears to be operationalized within the law as a five-year window. But for a number of these defendants, their commission of gang crimes is rather marginal. The question about active gang membership would appear crucial.
Second, how has the gang changed over time? That is a question that Detective Villanueva cannot really answer, but needs to be understood in order to understand if there is a current need for an injunction.
Many residents have argued that the original Broderick Boys, as a gang, is no longer in existence. Instead there is a loose affiliation of gang members in the area, but the threat they represent is less. Crime is down in West Sacramento, but part of that is not due to a gang injunction but rather to heavy investment in redevelopment, jobs, and infrastructure by the city leaders in West Sacramento.
Recall that the Vanguard spoke with Detective Villanueva last summer in Fairfield.
When he began working in West Sacramento, he took note of the Broderick Boys Gang.
“What I noticed about the Broderick Boys is they were pretty sophisticated in the sense that they’re well-organized, structured, and there was just a lot of them,” Officer Joe Villanueva told the Vanguard. He estimated their numbers to be 500 to 600 members over the years. “This particular gang, the Broderick Boys, was fifty percent of the caseload for our investigation division. There was only one guy monitoring these individuals, that was me.”
“There were a lot of gang cases. I testified in over forty cases,” he said, estimating that figure to be over a period of five to seven years. “I’d say maybe half a dozen went to trial. That includes prelims and the grand jury.”
“The most common things was guns, drugs, and then violent crime. A lot of robberies,” he said. “But even the shootings, with gang crimes, is very difficult with witness intimidation, no one wants to come forward and testify with gang cases. It makes it really difficult for trying to solve gang crime, because of the fear and intimidation. But a majority of the stuff that I dealt with was violent crime.”
One of the key questions we asked is whether West Sacramento needed a gang injunction.
Detective Villanueva explained to the Vanguard at that time how the gang injunction came to be. “Jeff Reisig and I went to a gang conference down in Southern California where it was talked about and there was also an issue with one officer monitoring all of the gangs in the city. Here’s this one gang that was established and was committing all of this crime to where it was fifty percent of our case load in investigations. So we talked to some of the people in Southern California and it seemed like something we could do in our city.”
He said it would depend on different people’s views, some people think the gang problem is overblown and others think the gang injunction is needed. “My argument through both the first and the second one and through the depositions and everything else is, regardless of what I say or anyone else says, look at the factual evidence. Look at the constant crime that’s been consistent in that community. That’s what you can look at and make your decision from there. That’s one of the things with the Third Court of Appeals, they said the issue was the proof of service, but they said, the crime’s there and the history’s there.”
Joe Villanueva believed as he testified last week that the impact of the gang injunction is obvious. “It was amazing how it quieted things down, in that you didn’t see stuff out there that was so blatant,” he said.
“The guys that were getting arrested were tired of getting arrested so it prevented some crime. At the same time it’s an intervention to the show the young kids that it’s not worth getting on this list,” he continued.
“It really quieted things down. If you asked the guys that were in West Sacramento that worked the streets, they’ll tell you after the first one, how busy West Sac was, it just quieted down. It was a huge impact with limited resources. Even if we weren’t enforcing it, or enforcing it so much, just to have it there, it didn’t allow the gang members to think, I can be free to roam this area,” Detective Villanueva described.
He concluded, “If you think about it, the injunction itself only covers a certain amount of square miles in the city, however with the gangsters they were thinking it was the entire city. So they were unable to roam freely and intimidate people. They had to think a little bit before they went out and were doing this stuff. Some of them just said this wasn’t worth it.”
For many however, this view defies logic. You have individuals committing crimes, some of which will put them away for the rest of their lives. And yet a civil injunction with civil penalties is going to prevent them from joining gangs? It does not make much sense.
One of the key questions that has been raised is about the extent that the gang injunction is merely a political tool used by the DA’s Office. As we have tracked gang cases, we have noted many instances where the DA is willing to give no prison time and drop the more serious charges in exchange for an admission under Penal Code 186.22 of gang membership and activities in furtherance of criminal gang activities.
One belief is that the need for such pleas is to get the gang injunction approved. The other is that many of the grants that fund anti-gang activities require showing numbers and convictions of gang members for gang crimes.
Motivation of the DA’s Office plays a role in one critical incident that the Vanguard is now examining. In his 2008 letter, former DA Investigator Rick Gore alleges a then “recent” incident involving Deputy DA Jay Linden, who is one of the co-counsel for the plaintiffs in the gang injunction case. Mr. Gore describes him out with the gang unit in West Sacramento apparently wearing a badge and gun, and assisting with the arrest of the suspect.
This report apparently was withheld, as it involved the discovery of a broken windshield. The car was searched and a gun was found. The DA’s Office then attempted to turn it into a gang case, however, apparently Detective Villanueva disagreed.
Mr. Gore alleges that “[DA Supervisor] Garrett Hamilton was trying to make that case go away, since [DA Jeff Reisig] did not want it getting out that Deputy District Attorneys were out helping to arrest suspects.”
According to Mr. Gore, the DA tried to pressure then-DA Investigator Villanueva into filing this as a gang case, due to the fact that they found a gun in the car.
Writes Mr. Gore, “Investigator Villanueva was receiving flack from DDA Hamilton about his report not being complete. Villanueva came to me for advice. I told him he should never leave things out of his report and advised him to do a supplement immediately and turn it in.”
He wrote a supplemental report, and DDA Hamilton settled the case rather than allowing the case to go forward. The defense allegedly never discovered the supplemental report.
The gang injunction trial will continue Wednesday as the defense will continue to have their chance to cross-examine Detective Villanueva.
—David M. Greenwald reporting