RICO gang legislation passes Tennessee House

RICO gang legislation passes Tennessee House

Rep. Vince Dean (East Ridge, TN)
by Lee Davis

Some believe the recently passed gang legislation is a substantive bill and the bill’s sponsor, Representative Vince Dean (R-East Ridge), puts it this way: “It’s kind of like going from a screwdriver to an electric drill.” 

Others question the wisdom of attacking street crime with a complicated statute that has had limited success in the federal criminal justice system. It is hard enough to get a violent gang related case to trial now, with jury trial dates routinely more than a year after the crime.  Adding this legislation will slow the system down. RICO cases are labor intensive, expensive and require significantly more resources to investigate, prosecute and ultimately defend in court. That is the opinion of several veteran trial attorneys--including former prosecutors and defense attorneys. 

Other critics of the legislation point out that there are already laws on the books for every violent crime that the new law purports to target. And lastly, the US Attorney's office has the resources, the experience and the joint cooperation of federal and local law enforcement to prosecute RICO cases with existing federal laws. 

Some law enforcement officers believe that Tennessee’s version of the federal RICO (Racketeer-Influenced-Corrupt-Organizations) Act could make a dent in gang activity by defining the gangs themselves as criminal enterprises, and making membership a crime in itself.

Chattanooga law enforcement is divided according to a report in the Times-Free Press, Chattanooga Police Sgt. Todd Royval oversees the Crime Suppression Unit, which tracks gang activity. He said he’s not sure a state RICO statute is needed to address the gang problem in the city.
Federal RICO laws should be enough, he said. “A RICO case is a very labor intensive and expensive case to investigate, and we would have to involve other state and federal agencies for assistance,” Royval said. “It would be easier and more cost effective to use the current federal statute for RICO. A good RICO case would probably include defendants from outside of Hamilton County and possibly into other states, so I would be inclined to start a federal RICO case instead of a state RICO case.” 
Chattanooga Police Capt. Edwin McPherson oversees the special investigations unit, which includes Royval’s group. He said the law is needed. “I think that it will work for us in certain situations for people deserving of a stiffer penalty for the crimes they are committing,” he said. “I really think that it is something we can use as leverage on gang bangers who want to go out here and commit crimes as a group or organization.”
The new bill would permit police and prosecutors to charge anyone found to be a gang member or gang leader. This is given a very broad definition and includes anyone who commits, coerces, conspires with or hires somebody else to commit violent crimes such as murder, rape and assault; or profits from the proceeds of burglaries, drug sales, or gun sales.

“Without RICO, certain felony convictions would draw prison sentences of eight to 12 years,” says Boyd Patterson, a former-prosecutor turned gangs initiative co-czar in Chattanooga. “With RICO, the penalty jumps to 12 to 20 years,” a substantial difference if you’re on the wrong end of the new sentencing structure.

Federal RICO cases often take three to five years to make and to prosecute and can be very expensive and laborious processes. Patterson says that “We may have two or three cases against two or three folks. If our goal is a dozen gang members, it’s gonna take that much longer.” The new legislation will mean that when the police do bring charges they can level them against the entire gang, rather than putting people away piecemeal.

Co-sponsor Senator Bo Watson (R-Hixson) says legislators objected to toughening penalties for repeat offenders. “It’s a matter of cost,” he says. “A greater cost of incarceration, and that draws the fiscal note up to where that really wasn’t a piece of legislation we could move this year.”

Supporters have estimated that the cost of longer sentences will already add $109,000 to the yearly corrections budget. Had the backers pushed for even more stringent penalties Senator Watson says the total cost of incarceration could have increased by $1.4 million.

Governor Haslam is expected to sign the bill; and, it will become law on July 1.

-“Police Chief: ‘There’s a lot more bite to this law’,” by Gordon Boyd, published at WRCBTV.com.

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