UPDATE: Court strikes down Tennessee’s gang enhancement law
The court said Tennessee largely stands alone in the nation for punishing criminals simply for being in a gang.
The Tennessee Criminal Court of Appeals ruled that a state law allowing longer sentences for gang members is unconstitutional. Some say the decision could directly affect Chattanooga's fight against gang violence.
The state's gang enhancement law allowed gang members to serve extra prison time for non gang-related crimes, simply because of their affiliation. The higher court struck down the law after it was used to prosecute several cases in Knoxville.
Although the Hamilton County District Attorney's Office has never used the state's gang enhancement law, District Attorney General Neal Pinkston says the ruling will affect how cases are handled under the city's Violence Reduction Initiative.
"As prosecutors, we can't ask for an increased punishment just because someone was arrested as part of an enforcement action," Pinkston explained.
A state appellate court struck down the state's gang enhancement law, saying it's unconstitutional to give harsher punishments to criminals, just because they're part of a gang.
"The punishment component of the VRI will be very difficult to move forward with," said Chattanooga defense attorney Gerald Webb.
"The VRI is probably a very good program in some cities and states in which it's been used. It just doesn't work here in Chattanooga, and this is one of the main reasons why it doesn't work," Webb said.
The Chattanooga Police Department remains committed to the initiative.
Chief Fred Fletcher said the VRI has never relied on the gang enhancement law. In a statement to Channel 3, Fletcher said:
"We ask the DA to push for punishments closer to the maximum, rather than the minimum. I would ask him to do nothing beyond what the law allows him to do. Instead, I would ask to simply work with us as we seek to impose punishment on members of gangs who have murdered someone."
VRI creator David Kennedy echoes the Chief of Police.
"Existing legal structures give all the tools that are needed to focus on (violent) groups," Kennedy said. "They don't have to be prosecuted as gangs, you don't need gang enhancements, none of that is necessary."
Kennedy said the VRI can work if all agencies work together.
"It's not a resistance to cooperate," said Pinkston, "it's just I understand the limits we work in and work under. The appellate courts have kind of spoken to that as well."
Channel 3 reached out to the Mayor's Office for comment. We were referred to the Chattanooga Police Department, which will continue following the VRI.
Using a Knox County case, an appellate court has struck down as unconstitutional a Tennessee law that allows harsher penalties for crime-committing gang members.
The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals ruled in an opinion released Thursday the state's gang enhancement law is so broad it allows gang members to suffer extra punishment for crimes that had nothing to do with the gang or gang activity and the misdeeds of other gang members in which they weren't even involved.
The court noted the 2012 law pushed by prosecutors and police was passed with good intent — to seek to quell gang violence — but was crafted so poorly it could apply to a member of a college fraternity. Like street gangs, fraternities use color schemes and symbols to show affiliation, and its members sometimes commit crimes that meet the law's overly broad definition of "gang-related crime," the court stated. The law defines "gang-related crime" as any offense in which a person either hurts or kills someone or threatens to hurt or kill someone while committing a crime. Hazing, the court noted, could qualify.
"It simply cannot be maintained that a statute ostensibly intended to deter gang-related criminal conduct through enhanced sentencing is reasonably related to that purpose where the statute in question is completely devoid of language requiring that the underlying offense be somehow gang-related before the sentencing enhancement is applied," the opinion stated.
Read more from our partners at the Knoxville News Sentinel.