Involvement in a criminal gang can attract serious legal repercussions, including long prison sentences that may extend to life imprisonment. Upon your arrest, you must learn more about the criminal system, including whether you will face trial under the federal or state justice systems.

Federal cases often attract stricter case analysis and harsher penalties as they involve well-developed gang networks. On the other hand, cases tried within the California state system may allow more leniency, depending on the specific gang activity tied to your charges.

By comparing the federal and California state laws on gang crimes, you can better understand the possible court procedures and outcomes you may face. You will also have a better chance of preparing solid defenses to counter the prosecutor’s case against you.

The Nature of Gang Laws

California state laws and the federal system take gang offenses seriously, as the crimes often expose the general public to security and safety threats. Many gang offenses are also related to drug trafficking and distribution, resulting in continued drug problems in the country. Based on this, arrested gang members often face intense questioning sessions and investigation processes to determine their affiliations.

After the investigation officers gather sufficient information on your case, they will forward the details to a prosecutor. Among the factors for the prosecutor to consider is whether to proceed with the case at the state level or to forward the issue to the federal department.

In some circumstances, your arrest may have been under federal law, especially if federal investigators were behind your apprehension. If so, your case will likely remain under the federal system, where you will face specific charges depending on your alleged actions.

Multiple offenses can lead to your arrest, and the investigation officers must gather as much relevant information as possible. Your charges greatly depend on the type of criminal activity you engage in, determining whether you will face state or federal charges. For example, participation in a drug syndicate may result in federal charges because the gang crimes may go beyond California.

California and federal gang laws have various similarities in defining criminal offenses. However, some differences also apply, particularly in the penalties and elements of crimes making up a charge. Federal law can impose harsher enhancements for a specific offense based on the severity of your actions and the overall effect.

Defining a Street Gang Under California Law

The starting point for any state or federal prosecution for gang-related offenses is determining whether you were in a street gang. Based on this, it is important to understand the legal definition of a criminal street gang under California law to assess whether your circumstances fall under the description.

The California Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act (STEP) and Section 186.22(a) of the California Penal Code are the guiding statutes when defining a street gang. Based on the provisions, you may face state law prosecution for being in a street gang if:

  • You are in a formal or informal group consisting of at least three people.
  • You share a common name for the group and have a sign/ or symbol for it.
  • The main group activity involves committing a serious offense that often includes drug trafficking and violent activities.
  • The group is prone to gang-related activities like theft and carjacking.

In court, a state prosecutor relies on the legal provisions to establish your identity as a gang member, provided they support their accusations with sufficient evidence. Since the definition is broad in scope, state law is often effective in justifying the arrest and prosecution of street gang members.

Defining a Street Gang Under Federal Law

Federal laws also define street gangs for prosecution under 18 USC 521. The provision defines a street gang as a group comprising five or more people participating in various criminal activities. A federal court prosecutor can successfully present their case against a street gang if they establish the gang’s involvement in any of the following:

  • Participation in Gang Activities Affecting Foreign or Interstate Business Associations.

Gang activities influencing commerce across various states qualify for federal prosecution based on their broad scope of operations. The prosecutor's involvement can, therefore, successfully file the case in federal court if they can show the gang’s involvement in interstate or foreign criminal operations. They may do this by coordinating with the Federal Bureau of Investigations in various departments to obtain the necessary details surrounding your case.

  • The Gang Has Primary Objectives to Engage in Felonies Involving Physical Force.

Alternatively, the prosecutor can proceed with a federal case if they have information on your gang’s involvement in physically violent felonies. For example, kidnapping, carjacking,  and assault charges attract felony charges, so your group can rightfully be defined as a street gang if they participate in any of the offenses.

  • Participation in Felonies Punishable by a Five-Year Prison Sentence.

Further, a street gang definition will apply to engagement in any felony whose penalties include a five-year prison sentence, especially if it is drug-related. The severity of punishment indicates the serious nature of your offense, warranting the need for a trial in a federal court.

Defining a Continuing Criminal Enterprise

Federal law defines a continuous criminal enterprise for prosecution under 21 USC 848. The purpose of creating a definition guideline is to curb the prevalence of drug-related gang crimes on the federal level, as many activities involve interstate operations.

You may face charges for a continuing criminal enterprise under federal law if you:

  • Participate in a Federal Drug-Related Felony.

Drug crimes fall into various categories depending on the nature of operations, including the federal offenses category. Based on this, you may face federal charges for participation in organized drug trafficking across states, drug distribution, and violent gang activities related to drug trafficking and sales. The definition applies regardless of whether you have faced formal charges before, provided the prosecutor can show that your criminal actions would amount to a federal offense.

  • You Operate in a Group of At Least Five Members.

Gang activities also have management and supervision syndicates, and they should comprise five or more people to fit the continuing criminal enterprise definition. During the trial, the prosecution team must establish the involvement and participation of the five suspected members to increase the chances of a successful outcome.

  • You Have Financially Benefited From the Gang Operations.

Many gangs engage in repeated activities because of their financial gains during operations. Therefore, the prosecutor must show that you have gained significant financial profits from the income you receive after engaging in a federal drug felony.

Federal Laws Against Gang Activities

Having understood the definitions and classifications of street gang activities at both the state and federal levels, it is also necessary to learn about the specific laws prohibiting gang activities. The following are the main laws applicable on the federal level:

  • Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) (USC 1961–68).

Engaging in or conspiring to engage in at least two offenses to facilitate continuing criminal enterprise activity attracts federal charges under the RICO provisions. The prosecutor handling your case can file charges based on your participation in any of the 36 offenses on the gang crimes list. These offenses can be both state and federal offenses, and the prosecutor applies discretion to establish the most suitable charges.

You may face up to twenty years in state prison or life imprisonment if found guilty of offenses prohibited under RICO. Additionally, the judge may impose a fine of up to $250,000 and a mandatory forfeiture order of profits from any unlawful gang activities you engaged in.

  • Violent Crimes in Aid of Racketeering Act (VICAR) (18 USC 1959).

 The VICAR statute supplements the RICO Act by specifying the punishable federal offenses that street gangs engage in when conspiring or engaging in crimes to promote continuous criminal enterprise. Examples of offenses prohibited in the VICAR statute include committing assault with a dangerous weapon, murder, assault causing serious body injury, and kidnapping.

The penalties applicable to any party found guilty of the offenses include life imprisonment, specifically for kidnapping and murder. You may also face prison sentences ranging from ten to twenty years for assault, depending on the circumstances of your case.

  • Federal Criminal Street Gangs Statute: 18 USC 521.

Participation in any gang activity involving your advancement in gang ranks or supporting gang activities is punishable under the Federal Street Gangs Statute. The provisions advocate for a sentence enhancement of up to ten additional years on top of your punishment for the federal charge you face.

  • Continuing Criminal Enterprise Statute (CCE), 21 USC 848.

The CCE is mainly applicable to narcotics operations undertaking major interstate operations. The main prohibitory provisions make it illegal to be a drug enterprise leader and to avoid arrest by killing a law enforcement officer.

If convicted, you face a minimum of twenty years in state prison and a forfeiture order of four million dollars for individual operations or ten million dollars for an organized gang operation.

California Laws Against Gang Activities

Under California law, the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act (STEP) and the California Penal Code are the primary legal instruments informing gang laws. Section 186.22(a) of the Penal Code prohibits participation in street gang activities or assisting in engaging in any actions amounting to a felony offense. The penalties applicable to the offense include up to one year in county jail for a misdemeanor charge or up to three years in state prison for a felony offense.

Under Section 186.22(b), a sentence enhancement applies to anyone who benefits a gang by committing a felony offense. The prosecutor must show that you aimed to provide assistance, advancement, or promotion of gang activities when participating in the crime before the judge can issue an enhancement. Notably, the enhancement attracts a mandatory prison sentence, requiring you to serve consecutively.

Sections 186 to 186.8 aim to regulate access to and use of profits from organized crime activities. If your gang member faces criminal charges, the prosecutor can rely on Section 186 to restrict access to any financial profits you receive.

The restriction applies if you have previously committed two or more felonies to make profits, so the prosecutor must also provide sufficient proof of the previous offenses. If liable, you must forfeit your illegally obtained profits to the court as a punitive measure for your actions.

Defenses Applicable for Federal and State Charges on Gang Crimes

Whether you face state or federal charges for participation in gang-related offenses, your criminal defense attorney can help you fight the accusations by raising solid defenses. Your selected defenses depend on the charge you face as well as the circumstances of the case. Some applicable counterarguments to challenge your federal or state prosecutor’s case include:

  • The charged offenses do not relate to your gang’s activities.
  • You face false accusations for the alleged charges.
  • You do not belong to the alleged gang.
  • The group of people you are affiliated with does not fall within the statutory definition of a gang.

Overall, both federal and state laws operate to curb gang crimes by imposing serious penalties on the perpetrator. Despite this, you can access more leniency under state laws, as the judge may allow you to serve your sentence on parole.

On the other hand, federal charges result in harsher penalties that may result in extended sentences, depending on the nature of your case. Liaising with an experienced criminal defense attorney is important in both situations to help you navigate the criminal trial process smoothly.

Contact a Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me

After facing arrest for alleged involvement in gang crimes, you need to understand applicable federal and state laws. Learning about the laws prepares you for potential case trajectories. As a result, you are in a better position to raise strong defenses to fight your charge. Federal gang laws impose stricter conditions for an arrested suspect, while state laws may have more lenient options like parole after sentencing. You should work with a defense attorney who understands the core differences between both justice systems.

At the Law Office of Sara L. Caplan, you will receive quality criminal defense services to equip you with all the necessary information about your case. Our team is ready to handle your case by preparing strong defenses to counter your gang-related charges in Los Angeles, California. Thanks to our years of experience handling criminal cases, you can count on us for reliable legal guidance to increase your chances of a favorable case outcome. For more information on the gang laws applicable at the federal and state levels, call us at 310-550-5877.