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When Is an Offense Labeled a Gang Crime in California?

Participating in a gang can lead to imprisonment. Criminal offenses related to gang participation carry penalty enhancements of additional prison time.

California’s gang-related laws are taken very seriously and carry up to an additional 15 years in prison on top of a typical sentence for the crime. The statutes are collectively known as the STEP Act or California Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act.

A skilled attorney at Corrigan Welbourn Stokke, APLC can defend those accused of gang crimes in multiple ways:

  • Challenge the underlying felony
  • Challenge whether the offense qualifies for a gang enhancement
  • Show the defendant is not a gang member
  • Show the offense was unrelated to the gang
  • Appeal to the judge to strike the gang allegation

California’s Legal Definition of Gang

The term gang has a specific meaning in the penal code. A crime cannot be labeled as a gang-related offense unless this definition is met.

California defines a criminal street gang as follows:

“… an ongoing, organized association or group of three or more persons, whether formal or informal, having as one of its primary activities the commission of one or more of the criminal acts enumerated in subdivision (e), having a common name or common identifying sign or symbol, and whose members collectively engage in, or have engaged in, a pattern of criminal gang activity.”

A pattern of criminal gang activity is established if the group’s primary activities include two or more of the following offenses committed by two or more members:

  • Assault with a deadly weapon or by means of force likely to produce great bodily injury
  • Robbery
  • Unlawful homicide or manslaughter
  • The sale, possession for sale, transportation, manufacture, offer for sale, or offer to manufacture a controlled substance
  • Shooting at an inhabited dwelling or occupied motor vehicle
  • Discharging or permitting the discharge of a firearm from a motor vehicle
  • Arson
  • The intimidation of witnesses and victims
  • Grand theft
  • Burglary
  • Rape
  • Money laundering
  • Kidnapping
  • Mayhem
  • Aggravated mayhem
  • Torture
  • Felony extortion
  • Carjacking
  • Threats to commit crimes resulting in death or great bodily injury
  • Theft and unlawful taking or driving of a vehicle

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), there are 33,000 street, motorcycle, and prison gangs in the United States. The number of documented gang members in Orange County has dropped sharply. The Orange County District Attorney’s Office statistics show nearly 20,000 members in 1999. Documented gang membership shrunk steadily in the following years, down to 5,414 in 2019.

Gang Participation Is Illegal

Merely being a member of a street gang is a crime in California. Participation in a gang is punishable by either a misdemeanor or felony depending on the circumstances. Up to 1 year in county jail or up to 3 years in state prison can be added to the underlying crime's penalty.

Enhanced Sentences for Gang-Related Crimes

Once a violation of the law is labeled as a gang crime, enhanced penalties come into play A judge can add years to the sentence of a felony committed with the intent to advance a gang's criminal enterprise.

California gang crimes may receive the following enhancements:

  • Additional 5 years: Serious felony
  • Additional 10 years: Violent felony
  • Additional 15 years: Felony involving a home-invasion robbery, carjacking, shooting into an inhabited dwelling, or shooting from a motor vehicle
  • Life sentence: Murder that occurred during a drive-by shooting, carjacking, or home invasion

The court also has the discretion to add time for felonies committed within 1,000 feet of a school when school is in session. Misdemeanors can be felonies if committed for the benefit of the gang.

Adult Criminal Charges for Juvenile Gang Members

Individuals younger than 18 can be charged as adults for gang crimes – with limitations.

In a unanimous decision by the California Supreme Court in 2021, the high court upheld a 2018 law that barred the adult prosecution of those younger than 16. The 2018 law was an amendment of Proposition 57, approved in 2016, that allowed minors as young as 14 to be charged as adults. The underlying criminal case involved a 15-year-old who allegedly killed two people to impress fellow gang members.

Defend Against Gang Crimes with an Experienced Lawyer

Every person deserves a strong defense against criminal charges. That includes those accused of gang participation and related criminal activity. The possibility of decades behind bars is real.

The attorneys at Corrigan Welbourn Stokke, APLC are former prosecutors who take a collaborative approach to each case. Their extensive trial experience and 100-plus years of collective experience give them insight into how best to frame a defense.

Contact us today for a consultation. We are available 24/7 at (949) 251-0330.