Another West Sacramento Gang Case

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ganginjunction_catAsian Rival Gangs Selling Drugs Together – Or Overreach by Authorities?

Like many so-called gang crimes, a central question is always whether a gang crime, and thus gang enhancement charges, are a “specific intent” charge as defense attorneys would argue, or whether they are more general, as prosecutors would argue. The former interpretation insists that gang enhancement charges require a specific intent to promote or benefit a criminal street gang, while the latter views such charges as simply applying to gang members committing crimes that may indirectly also benefit their criminal street gang.

In this case, four individuals, Det Kalah, Dom Kalah, Anthony Kalah and Saengphet Onsri face a series of drug charges, that the DA argues is a conspiracy to the benefit of the Asian Gangster Crips, along with enhancements for possession of a gun.

According to a brief filed by Deputy DA Ryan Couzens, the property on Walnut Street in West Sacramento, that he refers to as the compound, “has been a hotbed of Asian gangster activity over the years,” including a number of documented fights and drug deals.

Officer Duggins of the West Sacramento Police Department testified as a gang expert during the preliminary hearing.  He opined that Dom Kalah, Anthony Kalah, and Saengphet Onsri were all members of a gang – specifically, he identified Dom Kalah and Anthony Kalah as members of the Asian Gangster Crips and Saengphet Onsri as a member of the Tiny Rascal Gangsters

The defense argued that two rivals gangs would not be working together on drug dealing.  They countered that “there was not sufficient evidence to make the finding necessary to uphold the enhancement and that the People’s expert’s opinion lacks sufficient foundation to support the inference the charged offenses were committed for the benefit of, at the direction of, or in association with a criminal street gang, with the specific intent to promote, further, or assist the gang within the meaning of Penal Code section 186.22(b)(1).”

The case has already gone through preliminary hearing and the defendants have been held to answer for the pending charges.  Dom and Anthony Kalah were held to answer on all counts, which include drug charges, enhancements and the stand-alone gang charge.  Det Kalah was held to answer on Count Three –  “Maintenance of Location for Unlawful Activities” with Enhancement 3a Gang Enhancement, and Enhancement 3b Gun Enhancement. Saengphet Onsri was only held to answer to Count 3 without the enhancements. 

The trial is set to begin in late May.

On December 15, 2010, several defendants were arrested as the result of an ongoing investigation into suspected narcotics activity at certain Walnut Avenue addresses.  It was a culmination of a lengthy series of investigations by the West Sacramento Police Department.

In July 2010, a “controlled purchase” of drugs was conducted. “On the date of the controlled purchase, a ‘confidential reliable informant’ (CRI) went to 501 Walnut and purchased $20 worth of cocaine. The CRI indicated that he purchased the cocaine from Jaime (Jimmy) and Tommy Kalah.   The CRI also described weapons that, in the past, he had seen a sawed off shotgun, multiple handguns, and an assault rifle on the premises [sic].”

According to the defense, “After the controlled buy was concluded, officers from the West Sacramento Police Department (WSPD) continued to monitor and conduct surveillance on the premises.”

The police would conduct a number of other searches and investigations in the next several months, culminating with a December 15 search warrant, executed on the premises.

The four defendants were arrested on the date in question.  Unknown to them, an audio recording device had been placed in the [interrrogation] room.  During a conversation among the defedants, Dom Kalah allegedly stated that “somebody was probably snitching.”

According to Mr. Couzens, “Det Kalab was part of the conspiracy by allowing his residence to house the guns and drugs and to allow the sales to take place on his residence. Not only was narcotics, packaging material, weapons and gang material found in Det’s house, not only did the police inform Det that his son was dealing drugs, not only did Tommy (the son) admit to police that he was dealing drugs, but at least one other family member knew that Tommy was dealing drugs.”

While the defense attorneys individually argue that some of their respective clients lack culpability for the drug selling, at the heart of the dispute are the gang charges.

According to Deputy DA Ryan Couzens, “The People do not allege that Det Kalab ‘actively participates’ as described above, but rather he maintained the premises where the drugs were sold.”

He added, “The remaining defendants, however, are active gang members and are furthering, assisting or promoting the drug trafficking so that they may be held liable for the Conspiracy. Even the content of the recorded conversation alone, in which the three remaining defendants discuss their predicament and theorize how to find  ‘the snitch,’ such activity was furthering or assisting the criminal enterprise of the gang that would trigger conspiracy liability.”

However, as defense countered, “[Dom Kalah] did not indicate what this ‘somebody’ was supposedly snitching about.”  Despite Mr. Couzens’ claims to the contrary, the term snitching is not exclusive to gang terminology and is used quite widely in various subcultures, including drug dealing.

Deputy Public Defender Lisa Lance argued that the enhancement in PC 186.22(b)(1) requires a “specific intent” to “promote, further, or assist criminal conduct of the gang.”

Jeff Raven, citing CALCRIM 1401 (jury instructions, a concise source of the elements required for a crime), argued that in order to sustain a conviction for the gang enhancement, the people must prove both that the crime was committed “for the benefit of, or at the direction of, or in association with a criminal street gang” AND that the defendant “intended to assist, further, or promote criminal conduct by gang members.”  Thus even citing CALCRIM, the statute would appear to require a specific intent.

In a 995 Motion to dismiss, Deputy Public Defender Lisa Lance argued that her client, Dom Kalah, told Officer Herrera of the West Sacramento Police Department that he was no longer in a gang.

She wrote, “The only testimony regarding Dom’s alleged gang membership was that when Jimmy was asked by Officer Herrera regarding whether certain relatives were gang members, Tommy stated ‘you all didn’t see his tattoo,’ but didn’t follow up with any questions as to how or what Tommy knew, or what exactly Dom’s involvement in the Asian Gangster Crips was.”

She added, “No other person interviewed mentioned Dom when asked about gang membership.”

She concludes, “Quite simply, there is NO EVIDENCE Dom Kalah had any intent whatsoever to assist, further, or promote a criminal street gang.”

Furthermore, “There are two portions of the evidence solicited by the prosecution that show Dom Kalah is no longer an active gang member, and did not, on this occasion, or any occasion in the recent past, commit a crime for the benefit of, at the direction of, or in association with a criminal street gang, and had no intent to assist, further or promote criminal conduct by gang members.”

Indeed, she cited the fact that Mr. Kalah was good friends with what would be a rival gang member, arguing, “It is quite preposterous to imagine if Dom Kalah was [sic] an Asian Gangster Crip, that he would be such good friends with a rival gang member.”

However, Ryan Couzens argued, “Dom Kalah was part of the conspiracy to sell narcotics. Dom is an Asian Gangster Crips gang member, as are Anthony Kalah and Tommy Kalah. Tommy Kalah at least takes some direction from Dom in that Tommy told the police that he would not attack a rival gang member because it was a friend of Dom’s.”

He continues, “Indicia for Dom was found in building 501 as well as 481 #C.  Tommy Kalah said his family lived in all four buildings. When the police approached previously, Saengphet Onsri, who admitted to selling methamphetamine, at least consulted with Dom during the police surveillance. Dom Kalah indicated knowledge of the conspiracy and discussed the identity of the ‘snitch’ with Onsri and Anthony while in custody.”

Accoreding to Det Kalah’s attorney, Jeff Raven, “Officer Duggins testified that he does not believe Det Kalah was a member of any gang.”  He added, “Officer Herrera testified that there was no gang paraphernalia or graffiti found within the main unit of 501.”

Mr. Raven added that Mr. Det Kalah has no criminal record, gang affiliation or any real connection to the drug bust either.

For Mr. Raven, Det Kalah is nothing more than an unfortunate or negligent parent with a rebellious teenager who was involved with gangs and drugs.  “The evidence adduced at preliminary hearing showed nothing more than Det Kalah’s passive involvement with a street gang,” he argued.

He added, “Evidence showed that Tommy Kalah was an active member of the Asian Gangster Crips and that Dom had been a member at some point. The evidence further showed that Saengphet Onsri was a member of the Asian gang, Tiny Rascal Gangsters.”

“However, Det Kalah was not a member and never had been a member of any gang. Gang Expert Duggins testified to that fact himself.  Det had no tattoos, no criminal record, and nothing connecting him with the predicate offenses other than his relatives had admitted to dealing drugs and had participated in gangs,” he argued.

Ms. Lance argued, “The gang expert made broad allegations, but often lacked any foundation.”  Adding, “He could not testify that Dom Kalah was in any of the numerous pictures shown at preliminary hearing allegedly demonstrating gang activity.”

She would later add with respect to Count 4, the stand-alone gang charge, “As a matter of evidentiary sufficiency, there was no evidence presented on the issue of which gang ‘turf’ the drug sales allegedly took place in, or why members of the Tiny Rascals Gang (TRG) and the Asian Gangster Crips (AGC) would work together. In addition, the opinions proffered were wholly without foundation. Finally, the expert’s opinion alone cannot be the basis for a finding that the defendant acted with the requisite intent to benefit the gang.”

“There was no foundation for the opinions rendered by Officer Duggins that drugs benefit gangs and that TRG and AGC members will work together for drug sales,” Ms. Lance argued.

According to her, “Officer Duggins admitted that he did not know where the money Saengphet got from the drug sales went.”

She added, “Nonetheless, Officer Duggins speculated and then testified that a gang might benefit from drug proceeds in a number of ways. He did not give any indication as to how he came by this information and he did not specify that this was the means by which the AGC and TRG might benefit from drug proceeds. This opinion lacked any factual basis.”

“There is no foundation for these opinions. If any opinion rests on a house of sand, this one does,” Lisa Lance argued.  “Because the expert’s opinion can be no better than the facts on which it is based, the court cannot rely upon this evidence to make a finding that Mr. Kalah intended to somehow assist the gang by possessing drugs for sale, or conspiring to do so, or maintaining a place where drugs are sold, especially since no evidence was offered that Dom Kalah had any knowledge whatsoever of the presence of the drugs, or that they were allegedly being sold.”

Is this a drug deal, or a gang operation as the DA and West Sacramento Police allege? We will find out more when this case goes to trial at the end of the month.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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8 thoughts on “Another West Sacramento Gang Case”

  1. David M. Greenwald

    What do you mean by splitting hairs – as to the definition of the gang enhancement? We’re talking about a potentially considerable extension of the sentences based on how you interpret the statute.

  2. E Roberts Musser

    So it would seem the real issue is whether Det Kalah knew/didn’t know his sons were dealing drugs out of Det Kalah’s house. Sounds to me like Det Kalah must have known, if the prosecution can back up its version of events, to wit:

    “Det Kalab was part of the conspiracy by allowing his residence to house the guns and drugs and to allow the sales to take place on his residence. Not only was narcotics, packaging material, weapons and gang material found in Det’s house, not only did the police inform Det that his son was dealing drugs, not only did Tommy (the son) admit to police that he was dealing drugs, but at least one other family member knew that Tommy was dealing drugs.”

    If I were sitting on the jury, I would not find the defense’s argument particularly compelling – that gangs don’t normally work together for the sake of profit… when there is money to be made, unscrupulous people will do just about anything…

  3. Casey1060

    Seems a pretty far stretch to believe that two rival gangs would purposefully work together, even when there is financial incentive involved. Different groups are separate for a reason whether it be ideological differences, geographical location, social ties, etc. The fact that gangs MIGHT benefit seems too far fetched to make this charge differ from the normal drug deal… The reliance on expert witnesses for the sole explanation of a variety of factors seems too dangerous when making decisions that affect people for the rest of their lives– especially when the case lacks specific evidence to support such claims.

  4. David M. Greenwald

    Elaine: You are talking about more than just that, you are talking about people from rival gangs being close personal friends and working together for the benefit of their gangs, I find that difficult to believe.

    On the broader charges, there is a key question of whether Det Kalah knew that his home was being used for that purpose. In a prelim it is enough to assert it, but they will actually have to prove that he knew.

  5. medwoman

    Elaine

    It seems to me that Det Kalah is innocent until proven guilty. The burden of proof is on the prosecution. Isn’t it the case in a criminal trial that the proof must be byond a reasonable doubt? If so, then the defense argument does not need to be compelling, only to introduce doubt.
    Or have I been watching too many crime dramas ?

  6. E Roberts Musser

    medwoman: “It seems to me that Det Kalah is innocent until proven guilty. The burden of proof is on the prosecution. Isn’t it the case in a criminal trial that the proof must be byond a reasonable doubt? If so, then the defense argument does not need to be compelling, only to introduce doubt. Or have I been watching too many crime dramas ?”

    The defense has to introduce more than just doubt – the standard is “proof beyond a REASONABLE doubt”.

    dmg: “On the broader charges, there is a key question of whether Det Kalah knew that his home was being used for that purpose. In a prelim it is enough to assert it, but they will actually have to prove that he knew.”

    If the DA can prove what he says, then I would say there is plenty of evidence that Det Kalah knew perfectly well his home was being used as a drug house. However, we don’t know for sure the DA can prove what the DA is asserting. That remains to be seen. And I have known of several cases, in which parents either knew nothing as their children were dealing drugs out of a bedroom window at night, or were completely helpless to stop it (can be elder abuse).

  7. David M. Greenwald

    Elaine: I largely agree with your take in this case. They key is whether the DA can prove it, having it come from Ryan Couzens, I am skeptical, but we’ll see.

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