Chicago suburb battles street gang in civil court

Associated Press

CHICAGO (AP) — One suburban Chicago community wary of street gang activity is flexing some legal muscle and facing off against the group in an uncommon venue: civil court.

The city of Elgin, in a lawsuit recently filed on its behalf by the Kane County prosecutor, is seeking an injunction that would bar 25 reputed members of the Maniac Latin Disciples from associating with each other.

The 38-page suit also asks a judge to prohibit members from engaging in a lengthy list of other activities, from showing gang hand signs and carrying spray-paint cans to wearing hats emblazoned with the letter 'D.'

"When there are criminal penalties, we can pressure gangs in criminal court," Kane County State's Attorney Joe McMahon told The Associated Press in a phone interview Wednesday. "The civil suit is another tool that's available."

Chicago remains the regional hub of street-gang activity, but gangs have increasingly moved into surrounding suburbs like Elgin as demographics shift and gangs bid for new drug markets.

Prosecutors typically go after gangs using criminal drug, gun or racketeering statutes. But Elgin, which has a population of about 100,000 people, is using Illinois' 1993 Streetgang Terrorism Omnibus Prevention Act, meant to thwart gangs via civil injunctions.

The law is rarely used, though several other counties have occasionally deployed it. Kane County has used it twice before — in 2010 against Latin Kings in Elgin and in 2012, against Aurora's Latin Kings.

There's a lower threshold of proof in civil cases. And defense lawyers criticize the 1993 civil law, saying it unfairly provides prosecutors a backdoor to curtail someone's freedom of movement and association.

"You are taking away rights without the due process we get in criminal courts," said Elgin-based criminal attorney, Liam Dixon, who has represented gang members in the Kane County cases.

To win in court, attorneys for the city must demonstrate that each defendant has been previously convicted in criminal court for gang-related crimes and that they remain part of the gang.

But Dixon says court-ordered prohibitions can end up applying to people only casually affiliated with gangs or to one-time members who have long since left their gang life behind.

McMahon, the state's attorney, said the civil law had previously survived constitutional challenges, though he expected similar challenges from defense attorneys again.

If Elgin prevails, a gang member engaging in one of the prohibited activities can be charged with a misdemeanor. Once stopped, they also can be searched, potentially leading to more serious charges.

Previous cases filed by the county specified areas where the gang members were barred from meeting, but the latest suit does not — opening the door to the possibility the prohibitions would be statewide.

The suit also seeks unspecified monetary damages for the gang's past illegal activities.

An initial hearing in the case is set for Oct. 8.

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