The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals has struck down the state’s gang enhancement law, ruling that it is unconstitutional and could apply to traditionally non-violent organizations whose members commit crimes.
The court’s decision, released Thursday, was tied to a May 2012 case of attempted murder in Knox County that led to the conviction of four people, three of whom were members of Five Deuce Hoover Crips.
All were convicted of attempted second degree murder, aggravated assault and possession of a firearm during the commission of a dangerous felony.
The three gang members – Devonte Bonds, Thomas Bishop and Jason Sullivan – were sentenced under the gang enhancement law, which lets judges dole out stiffer penalties to gang members.
Bonds was sentenced to 23 years in prison; Bishop received 37 years and Sullivan got 40 years.
The fourth defendant, Brianna Robinson, was sentenced to 11 years.
The appellate court affirmed the convictions but sent the case back to Knox County Criminal Court to re-sentence the gang members.
Appellate court Judge Timothy Easter noted that the state law violates the due process clause of the 14th Amendment.
The law, the court noted, imposes mandatory punishment on a gang member “by imputing to him responsibility for the criminal activity of the gang (as a whole) without (requiring) the defendant’s knowledge of and intent to promote such activity.”
The court said the scope of the law’s potential application “is startling” and risked “an increased risk of arbitrary application.”
For example, the court also noted that fraternity members who wear the organization’s colors and letters could be subject to enhanced sentences, even if convicted of minor criminal offenses, like underage drinking.
The Knox County District Attorney's Office said the law has been an effective tool, helping it prosecute more than 60 cases.
"It's a hit for law enforcement," Deputy District Attorney General Kyle Hixson said. "There's no doubt about that. We fully respect the decision of the Court of Criminal Appeals and we obviously will respect that decision. We'll be working with our partners at the State Attorney General's office in Nashville to determine what steps that we take next."
Although it may hinder prosecutors, a former gang member said the new ruling will give people a second chance sooner than they expected.
"I didn’t join no gang because I was no bad dude who wanted to cause trouble in my city," Kwabena Miller said. "All I was looking for was love. All I was looking for was acceptance. A sense of belonging a sense of purpose, and that’s what these young people are looking for."
Miller now works with a group called Heal the Land, which aims to curb violence, especially among young people.
"The more that you throw them to the side, the more that you just create laws to make life hopeless for them, the less they even try,” he said. “I feel like it’s a step toward progress, and we got somebody in position that cares.”
Defense attorney Keith Lowe said he already has cases ready to appeal, and that it will affect dozens of other cases immediately.
“Until they fix it, unless the Supreme Court overrules the court of criminal appeals, they will not be able to gang enhance a wide variety of activities,” Lowe said.
While he said the law needs fixing, there are still some ways to use it in court.
“If you commit a crime initiating somebody into a gang, that is still subject to gang enhance because that part of the statute did not get struck down,” he said.