News & Opinion » Feature

Legal Limbo

Abel Manzo says he has been wrongfully put on Oakland's gang injunction list. But he has no constitutional right to an attorney.



When Abel Manzo arrives at his East Oakland barbershop, he doesn't look like a gangbanger. It's a Saturday morning around nine o'clock, and Manzo's partner is already giving a buzz cut to a ten-year-old boy whose mother patiently waits nearby. Manzo readies for his first appointment — a young man in his late twenties who shows up several minutes later. Manzo and his partner work diligently, chatting and joking over the hum of electric hair clippers. When it comes up that Manzo could possibly be put on a new gang injunction list, his partner laughs, saying he didn't realize he cut hair with such a big-time gangster.

But it's no laughing matter for Manzo. He says being listed as a violent gang member by the City of Oakland could lead to him losing customers — or worse. "Showing my face on there is, like, gonna put my life on the line," he said. "It could lead to my barbershop getting shot up."

Oakland police and City Attorney John Russo say Manzo deserves to be on the city's newest gang injunction list. The list includes dozens of alleged gang members in the city's Fruitvale District, and police say that despite Manzo's barbershop job, he's one of Oakland's most dangerous gang members. Russo and the city are going to court this week to win approval of the latest gang injunction. And if they win, Manzo's life will never be the same again.

Gang injunctions have sparked controversy throughout California, mostly because of fears about racial profiling. Civil libertarians contend that gang injunctions allow cops to target young men based on the color of their skin. But in liberal Oakland, Russo has attempted to fashion a different sort of gang injunction that addresses those concerns. "I've always been a skeptic of injunctions — the broad-based kind," Russo said in an interview. "To me, I have felt doing injunctions simply based on naming a gang and having an injunction against a gang and then having police on the scene make an ad-hoc determination as to whether or not someone is a member of the gang and therefore subject to the injunction — it's too vague for my liking as a civil libertarian."

So instead of just filing a court injunction against a specific gang, Russo also has targeted specific alleged gang members. The strategy is designed to limit racial profiling. Under Russo's plan, police can't arrest someone just because they believe he's a member of violent street gang. Instead, the alleged gang member must be on the city's official list before they're subject to the gang injunction.

Gang injunctions prohibit city-identified gang members from associating with each other or being on the street at night. Police believe they're an important tool in fighting crime. Earlier this year, Russo and Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts instituted the city's first gang injunction in North Oakland, but the jury is still out as to whether it has been effective. Russo and Batts believe it has, and the city attorney says his office has worked closely with police to identify forty members of the violent Nortenos gang in Fruitvale.

But while Oakland's gang injunctions appear to be more progressive than those in other cities because they attempt to address the problem of racial profiling, Oakland's strategy appears to have one significant flaw. Gang injunctions are civil matters, not criminal. That means that if an alleged gang member wants to prove he doesn't belong on the list, then he has little choice but to hire an attorney to clear his name. And if he can't afford one, he's out of luck. There's no constitutional right to an attorney in civil cases.

As for Manzo, he said he's simply a barber who sold some marijuana when he was younger, and doesn't belong on the city's violent gang-member list. There's also evidence that the city has wrongly placed people on its list before. But if Manzo wants to make this argument in court, he'll have to pay almost a thousand dollars in filing fees. And if he wants to win, he'll most likely have to have a good lawyer.

Fortunately for him, Michael Siegel and Jose Luis Fuentes, attorneys for the prominent Oakland law firm Siegel and Yee, have agreed to represent Manzo free of charge. Siegel and Fuentes believe that Manzo and the other alleged gang members targeted by the city should have the right to a lawyer if they can't afford one in civil cases — just as they would in a criminal case.

However, Manzo could soon find himself without a lawyer at all. That's because Russo is trying to dismiss Siegel and Yee based on an alleged conflict of interest. Russo contends that Siegel and Yee can't fight the city on Manzo's behalf because City Council President Jane Brunner is a member of that law firm.

Siegel and Yee and Brunner say there is no conflict. And Siegel hatched a new plan last week that may overcome the city attorney's charges. But if it doesn't and Russo gets his way, Manzo — like everyone else on the city's gang injunction list — will be on his own.

In a small room in the downtown Oakland police station, there's a gray metal bookcase with forty, white three-ring binders on it. Each one of the binders contains the name and photograph of a person that police and Russo say is a dangerous member of the Nortenos. "As you can see," Doug Keely said, pointing to one of the massive binders, "there's not just one little item. There are years and years of a pattern here of each individual doing multiple crimes, multiple stops, multiple confessions of being a gang member."