Matthew Arden Hatfield
Judge Ernie Jones rules on a motion during a hearing about a gang injunction for the Ogden Trece gang.

Ogden’s Trece gang is, by all accounts, a violent and criminal nuisance. It intimidates innocent people and members of other gangs alike in order to demonstrate its dominance. Its members commit robberies, sell illegal drugs and engage in other forms of mischief.

But Ogden’s police likely are going to have to find some other way to counter the gang than obtaining an injunction that bars Trece members from associating with each other in public.

In news stories this week, Ogden’s police chief said he plans to continue using such an injunction as a tool, but he now has a more difficult task in doing so, given a Utah Supreme Court ruling that voided an injunction issued by a lower court.

The Supreme Court’s decision didn’t concern any constitutional issues surrounding the right to peaceably assemble or associate, or the right against unlawful search and seizure. The court ruled that Weber County did not properly serve the gang’s officers with notice of the lawsuit it had filed against them.

The court noted witnesses had testified as to the gang’s leadership structure, in which certain “shot callers” had obtained positions of authority. The county argued that the gang is an unincorporated association without any known management structure, but the court said it needed to demonstrate it had taken steps to ascertain whether the gang had a structure.

As a practical matter, obtaining information about “shot callers” seems a nearly impossible task for law enforcement, especially considering the gang attempts to exist in the shadows to perform dishonest tasks. Its members have every incentive to give inaccurate information on gang structure or to change that structure as it suits them.

Officials gave notice to five people it identified as gang members, but they needed to assert that these five were “agents” or “officers” of the gang, the court ruled. Certainly, the county could make a more diligent effort to learn about the gang’s structure before once again serving the gang with a lawsuit. Because the court refused to grant gang members attorney fees, legal action may be one tool for harming their operations.

We remain concerned, however, about the constitutional issues that could make such an injunction a troubling precedent. By all indications, Trece is a gang that ought to be broken apart as its members are convicted of crimes. But this must be done in ways that don’t open the door to blanket restrictions on activities otherwise protected under the law. Police officers are regularly trained in the balancing act that requires them to take action only when they have probable cause. The mere association of two people with possible gang affiliations doesn’t meet that standard.

There should be no confusion as to who the good guys are in this battle. Ogden police need tools with which to protect the public from Trece. The most effective tools, however, are the ones that don’t put larger freedoms in peril or end up in further legal challenges.