UPI Wins Successful Legal Challenge to California’s Gang Database
One year ago, UPI received an urgent call from Liz Blanchard, whose brother, Nelson Valle, was detained at the Otay Mesa Immigration Detention Facility as a result of gang allegations. Liz knew Nelson was living a peaceful life and was no longer a gang member. However, the Long Beach Police Department continued to label Nelson as a gang member in California’s statewide gang database system and had subjected him to a gang injunction. To make matters worse, the private prison company that runs the Otay Mesa facility had also falsely labelled Nelson as a gang member.
Unfortunately, thousands of young men of color like Nelson are labeled with little or no verifiable evidence of gang membership. Nelson was brought to the country as a child and was on track to become a citizen when gang allegations derailed his legal status and was about to cause his deportation. When residents like Nelson begin the long path towards citizenship, unjust gang labeling can often prove to be an insurmountable obstacle.
“Nelson’s case is a perfect example of how labeling someone as a gang member after they’ve matured out of that lifestyle is bad public policy. Labeling Nelson a gang member has only made his integration into society harder. It’s added new traumas to the lifetime of traumas he’s already suffered. No one wins when overbroad gang suppression targets him or anyone like him,” remarked UPI's Staff Attorney Sean Garcia-Leys.
UPI’s Staff Attorney worked with Nelson’s immigration attorney, Mariana Hannah, to make a formal request to the Long Beach Police Department to provide documentation as to why Nelson was still considered a gang member. This kind of formal request for gang documentation had only just become possible as a result of the passage of new state legislation UPI recently championed. The Long Beach Police Department replied, but instead of providing documentation, they offered only a one-page checklist of criteria that they believed demonstrated Nelson qualified for inclusion on the gang database.
Used by police departments throughout the state, these brief checklists can include overly broad justification for gang membership such as wearing baggy pants, or being seen socializing with friends and neighbors. Despite UPI’s repeated requests for actual evidence, the Long Beach Police Department declined to provide any details that could be refuted. UPI, along with Homies Unidos and Loyola Law School’s Immigrant Justice Clinic, were able to use law enforcement’s lack of evidence to prove to an immigration judge that Nelson was no longer a gang member. With the gang allegations debunked, the judge granted Nelson legal status. After two years in detention, in April 2017, Nelson was finally free to return home.
With this new ruling, the Long Beach Police Department must remove Nelson from all shared gang databases. Moreover, police departments across the state are on notice that one-page checklists with little documentation are not enough to label an individual as a gang member. Nelson is hopeful for his future and is optimistic he can eventually gain legal status in the country he has called home since his childhood. UPI is now petitioning for Nelson’s removal from the Long Beach gang injunction and will continue to fight for others unjustly labeled as gang members.