TACOMA, Wash. - A 35-year-old state law is being used as a new weapon by Pierce County authorities in their battle against Tacoma's Hilltop Crips gang.
Earlier this month, criminal conspiracy charges were filed against 32 alleged gang members. County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Lindquist said it might be the first time that the law has been used "to go after gang crimes on this scale."
"What we're charging is that when you join a gang, you're joining a conspiracy to commit crimes and taking a substantial step in that direction," Lindquist told a news conference last week.
The law says it's conspiracy when someone agrees with at least one other person to commit a crime, and steps are then taken toward doing so. A person can be convicted even if he or she does not take part in the actual crime.
A conviction carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison -- much longer than the sentence for a conviction on car theft or burglary charges that some of the alleged gang members also face.
Lindquist said the conspiracy prosecution is based on efforts in other states, including Florida, where a nearly three-year effort to stamp out gangs using state racketeering and conspiracy laws has seen some success.
"It's a hell of a hammer," said Thomas Smith, an assistant chief statewide prosecutor in Florida. "We've done it all over the state."
Smith told The News Tribune of Tacoma that Florida officials estimate more than 100 gang members there have convicted over the past three years by targeting them with such laws.
"They all commit crimes individually, so to take them out one at a time takes awhile," Smith said. "Under the racketeering and racketeering conspiracy laws, one of them deals cocaine, they're all impugned."
Public defenders who represented the 32 Tacoma men at their arraignments have filed motions that prosecutors turn over a detailed list of the facts supporting the alleged conspiracy and the role individual defendants are accused of having played.
Tacoma defense attorney Wayne Fricke, who has defended clients against federal conspiracy charges, said Washington state prosecutors likely haven't pursued similar cases up to now because they take a long time to put together.
It's often easier, faster and cheaper to prosecute for individual crimes rather than make a conspiracy case, Fricke said.
Most of the 32 men arrested are black, but local officials, including Lindquist and Tacoma Police Chief Don Ramsdell, have said the gang was targeted solely because it is one of the most violent and active in Tacoma.