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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Public Defender: First Norteño Convicted for Violating Gang Injunction a Dubious Victory in City's Battle with Street Gangs

Posted By on Wed, Feb 4, 2009 at 10:03 AM


Earlier this week, the San Francisco District Attorney successfully tried the first case against a Norteño gang member for violating the city's gang injunction, which bans members from hanging out in a "safety zone" in the Mission. A brainchild of City Attorney Dennis Herrera, the gang injunctions have drawn outcry from civil rights groups and neighborhood activists. (Read our cover story on the injunction here.)

Yet to what degree the conviction constitutes a victory over gang crime in the Mission depends upon how you spin it. On one hand, it seems the DA nabbed its guy: Hernandez was convicted in 2006 of possession of suspected crack cocaine. In 2005, he was detained in connection with a "gang assault and robbery" of two bicycles at 24th and Capp Street, telling the victims to not call the cops, and choking one of the victims' dog, according to the police expert declaration used as evidence to place Hernandez on the injunction. The police said he was an "admitted" Norteño gang member and a "known member" of the San Franisco-based Norteño subset 21ABL -- as indicated by a "21" tattoo on his arm.

While Hernandez was found guilty of violating the letter of the gang injunction, if the law's intent is to nab the Mission's most ruthless, some information suggests Hernandez may not have been one of them. According to the Public Defender's office, Hernandez was on rehabilitation road: He had a full-time job, was "in the process" of enrolling at City College, and had begun getting his tattoos removed at a neighborhood non-profit. He had not had any other arrests since the injunction went into effect. The four people he was seen with were not named in the injunction, though prosecutors argued that they were gang members.

In December, Hernandez was arrested at 24th and York Streets while with a group of people who "had open beer containers and appeared to be smoking marijuana," according to a report in the Examiner. He was convicted of contempt of a court order for loitering after 10 p.m. in the safety zone and/or associating with known Norteño gang members, Public Defender spokesperson Lea Villegas says. (The District Attorney's office deferred comment until a press conference this afternoon.)

Hernandez had left the Precita Mission Neighborhood Center Safe Haven Program six blocks away from his apartment building just 10 minutes earlier than the time he was arrested at the corner one and half blocks away from his home, the public defender's office said. 

 "Several jurors were visibly distraught after being required to find Henry technically guilty of violating the injunction," said Deputy Public Defender Maria Lopez in a press release. "One of the jurors even apologized to him after the verdict was read."

"...Henry Hernandez was doing everything right. He was going to school and working. Now, instead of receiving praise for his efforts to avoid the gang lifestyle, he might be sent to jail." 

His sentencing is scheduled for February 23. The public defender's office said this conviction would likely delay any attempt by Hernandez to get his name removed from the gang injunction list in an "opt-out" procedure set up by the city attorney's office last year. The procedure was created to recognize "that individuals can and do change for the better."  

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Lauren Smiley


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