Is Wearing A Motorcycle Vest Enough To Prove You Belong To A “Criminal Street Gang”?
Fear of organized criminal activity has led the State of Texas to criminalize a person’s association with a “criminal street gang.” The law defines such a gang as “three or more persons having a common identifying sign or symbol or an identifiable leadership who continuously or regularly associate in the commission of criminal activities.”
Certain acts that would otherwise be legal may be prosecuted as criminal activity if the state can prove the defendant was a member of a gang as defined above. For example, despite Texas’ famously permissive gun laws, it is against the law for a person to carry a handgun while acting as a member of a criminal street gang.
Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Throws Out Weapons Conviction
But as the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) recently noted, prosecutors and trial courts have gone too far in broadly classifying people as gang members without sufficient legal proof. The CCA made these observations in a recent case, Martin v. State, where a defendant was arrested for identifying with a gang but not necessarily participating in any criminal activities associated with said gang.
Here is what took place. A police officer initiated a routine traffic stop of the defendant. During the stop, the officer noticed the defendant wearing a motorcycle vest bearing the name of a group called the Cossacks. The officer decided to search the defendant for weapons. The defendant admitted he had a pistol. He also admitted he was a member of the Cossacks, which the officer believed to be a criminal street gang. On that basis, he arrested the defendant for unlawfully carrying a weapon as a member of a criminal street gang.
At trial, the prosecution introduced evidence regarding the nature of the Cossacks and its activities. The defendant also elected to testify on his own behalf. He told the jury that he never believed the Cossacks to be a criminal gang, and that he himself had never been convicted of any crime. Despite this, the jury found the defendant guilty and fined him $400.
The CCA ultimately reversed the conviction and ordered an acquittal, however, explaining that the law required proof not just that the defendant identified with a criminal street gang, but that he “continuously or regularly associate[d]” with said gang “in the commission of criminal activities.” As the CCA noted, the defendant here was convicted simply for wearing a vest that bore the symbol of a particular group. If he had not been wearing the vest, his carrying of a handgun was not a crime in Texas.
That is why, the CCA reasoned, criminal gang membership requires proof of actual association with criminal activities. In this case, the defendant had no criminal record of any kind. And aside from his mere presence at a shooting incident involving other Cossacks members–one where the defendant did not participate or even possess a firearm–there was nothing to even suggest he’d ever participated in any organized criminal activity.
Contact Texas Criminal Defense Attorney Keith B. French Today
When dealing with basic constitutional rights, police and prosecutors should not go after someone based solely on how they look or dress. If you are facing criminal charges of this sort and need legal representation from a qualified Pearland gun charge lawyer, contact Keith B. French, PLLC, today to schedule a free consultation.