Court strikes down TN law boosting penalties for gang members

Using a Knox County case, an appellate court has struck down as unconstitutional a Tennessee law that allows harsher penalties for crime-committing gang members, reports the News Sentinel.

The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals ruled in an opinion released Thursday the state’s gang enhancement law is so broad it allows gang members to suffer extra punishment for crimes that had nothing to do with the gang or gang activity and the misdeeds of other gang members in which they weren’t even involved.

The court noted the 2012 law pushed by prosecutors and police was passed with good intent — to seek to quell gang violence — but was crafted so poorly it could apply to a member of a college fraternity. Like street gangs, fraternities use color schemes and symbols to show affiliation, and its members sometimes commit crimes that meet the law’s overly broad definition of “gang-related crime,” the court stated. The law defines “gang-related crime” as any offense in which a person either hurts or kills someone or threatens to hurt or kill someone while committing a crime. Hazing, the court noted, could qualify.

“It simply cannot be maintained that a statute ostensibly intended to deter gang-related criminal conduct through enhanced sentencing is reasonably related to that purpose where the statute in question is completely devoid of language requiring that the underlying offense be somehow gang-related before the sentencing enhancement is applied,” the opinion stated.

The court said Tennessee largely stands alone in the nation for punishing criminals simply for being in a gang. Gang membership, even a criminal one like the mob, is not illegal in the United States. Florida enacted a similar law, but the Florida Supreme Court struck it down in 1999 for the same reasons now being cited by the Tennessee appellate court.

“Nearly all gang enhancement statutes in this country contain specific language limiting the reach of those statutes only to offenses that possess a nexus to a defendant’s gang affiliation, and therefore, a defendant’s own criminal conduct,” Appellate Judge Timothy Easter wrote.

Note: The full opinion is HERE.