Beginning in the 1970’s, California police departments started a system of filling out 5- by 7-inch index cards, known as “field cards”, whenever the officer encountered a person suspected of having a gang affiliation. The cards included the person’s name, their “gang moniker”, gang affiliation and other identifying information. Back in those days, the cards were filed in cabinets. Cops still collect field cards but these days, the information is placed in a statewide database called CalGang.
With the passage of the STEP Act in 1988, prosecutors were able to add gang charges and enhances to charges where the conduct was alleged to be gang related. Upon the creation of the CalGang database, law enforcement and prosecutors had a new tool to quickly identify and prosecute gang-related crime. With CalGang, officers in the field are able to instantly determine whether an individual has been identified to have gang ties—no more digging through filing cabinets.
Not surprisingly, law enforcement and prosecutors are enthusiastic users of CalGang: Law enforcement feeds the database, sometimes with dubious information, and prosecutors use it at every opportunity. Today the database has grown to include more than 150,000 names and a recent state audit found that individuals as young as nine-years-old are included in the database. CalGang casts a wide net and sometimes individuals are included in the database simply for being in the wrong area.
The CalGang database is kept in secret. There is no public access to the names on the database and except for a recent law that requires police departments to notify parents of juveniles added to the database, a person cannot know if he or she is in the database or what information the database may contain about the individual. Adults are supposed to be removed from the database if their file has not been updated for five years. But that often does not happen and even so, an officer can “update” a person’s file based on the most minimal of contact such as stopping someone while driving in a known gang area.
There is no rigorous oversight of the CalGang database but a recent statewide audit revealed that the database is full of errors. The California State Auditor, which conducted the audit, sub-titled its findings: “As the Result of Its Weak Oversight Structure, It Contains Questionable Information That May Violate Individuals’ Privacy Rights.”
Among other revelations, the audit found that over 600 individuals whose names should have been purged years ago were still listed in the database and that the names of 42 people who were listed had birthdates that indicated they were infants when they were added to the database. A data sample from four agencies, including the Sana Ana Police Department, found that numerous CalGang entries the agencies had made could not be substantiated and that the agencies were not properly notifying the parents of juveniles who had been added to the database as required by a 2013 law.
The audit was an eye-opening and critical critique of a database that has been kept shrouded in secrecy. The key findings include that CalGang has failed to comply with privacy protection requirements, law enforcement cannot always demonstrate the required reasonable suspicion for including an individual in the database, and the database lacked safeguards to ensure the data was accurate. These errors can have serious consequences for an individual caught in the CalGang net. The audit recommended reforms but whether these reforms will be instituted remains to be seen; law enforcement and prosecutors are very protective of the database so it might take legislation before we actually see any changes.
William Weinberg is an experienced criminal defense attorney. Gang-enhanced charges require the attention of an experienced criminal defense attorney. If you have any questions regarding your gang-enhanced charges or any criminal defense matter, please feel free to contact Mr. Weinberg to set up a confidential consultation without charge at firstname.lastname@example.org or (949) 474-8008.