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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.

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Pernik said the Tulare County District Attorney's Office "fought like hell" to prevent him from representing the people accused of being gang members. In the end, the superior court judge allowed it. But the Tulare County DA's office is still upset. "The public defender use of public money in order to attempt to frustrate efforts to suppress criminal street gang activity in our communities is a misuse of our tax money," said Don Gallian, assistant district attorney for Tulare County. "If the injunction is imposed and someone is arrested and they cannot afford an attorney, they then have a right to obtain representation through the Public Defender's Office. However, until that happens, the public defender should not be using public funds in an attempt to frustrate efforts of our communities to protect themselves from gang violence."

Back in Oakland, Russo's office said they would not object to the Alameda County Public Defender's Office representing any of the forty people accused of being gang members. However, the Alameda County public defender's office said it would not seek to defend alleged gang members in civil court. Representing people in a civil gang injunction case is "outside the scope of our duties," the office said in a formal statement. "It is our understanding that competent counsel is challenging this injunction."

But that competent counsel, Siegel and Fuentes, may not be challenging the injunction for long. Russo is going to court to get them kicked off the case because Councilwoman Jane Brunner works for the same law firm. "You cannot serve two masters," Russo said of Brunner's role as councilwoman and as a member of a firm that is fighting the city. "You cannot have somebody on the letterhead of a law firm opposing an action of the city when they are also the chair of the legislative body. She's the chair of the council. She is hauling this office right now in front of city council complaining about how we spend our money. Tell me how that's not a conflict of interest."

But Brunner disagrees. She and the Siegel and Yee law firm point out that the council never sanctioned the city's gang injunctions, noting that Russo filed them on his own in his role as city attorney. They also maintain that Brunner is not involved in Manzo's defense. "Technically, I do not believe it's a conflict in interest," Brunner said. "I am going to recuse myself if the matter comes before city council."

But it may never come to that. Last week, Siegel and Fuentes announced that they had helped form a new nonprofit to represent alleged gang members in the city's Fruitvale gang injunction case. Called Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice or CURYJ (pronounced "courage"), the nonprofit petitioned the court to officially represent Manzo. The move may be enough to alleviate concerns about a conflict of interest, since Brunner's firm, Siegel and Yee, would no longer be officially involved in the case. However, it's unclear whether it will satisfy Russo and convince him to abandon his efforts to dismiss Siegel from Manzo's defense. Late last week, city attorney spokesman Alex Katz said Russo was not yet prepared to comment on the new nonprofit.

According to the Oakland City Attorney's Office, the North Oakland and Fruitvale gang injunctions have so far cost the city about $70,000. Some believe the city needs to put that money into programs and services while others believe it belongs where it is, in law enforcement.

But what the gang injunctions are worth is hard to pin down. As of mid-December, there had been 22 shootings and 2 murders in the North Oakland safety zone since it's been in effect, compared to eleven shootings and one murder during the corresponding time last year. At the same time, no one on the list has been convicted of violating the North Oakland gang injunction.

Still, Russo maintained that the first injunction has been a success. "The way to measure if an injunction is working is very simple," he said. "If you maintain the injunction against individuals, are those individuals still committing crimes at the rate that they were committing them before, in that neighborhood? Are they still terrorizing that neighborhood?"

But, critics ask, if shootings and murders have increased, while at the same time those on the list haven't been committing crimes, might it stand to reason that the city has targeted the wrong people? Russo said no. "It just means that there are other people committing crimes," he said. "And you need to deal with them. But they might not be part of a gang. The gang injunction is not a catchall for any criminal."

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