Major bills combating criminal gangs are approved as legislature prepares to close 2013 legislative session


NASHVILLE, Tenn. —  State Senators approved several bills to make Tennessee’s streets safer as the General Assembly prepares to close the 2013 legislative session, including major legislation to combat gang crime in Tennessee.  Gang related crime in Tennessee has risen steadily in the last four years, as incidents rose about 110 percent from 2005 through 2011 according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI).  The TBI also reports that cities with fewer than 50,000 residents saw gang crimes rise 232 percent as members are migrating from urban areas to recruit new members, expand their drug distribution territories, form new alliances, and collaborate with rival gangs and criminal organizations for profit and influence.


Last year, the General Assembly increased sentences for certain serious crimes committed by groups of three or more acting in concert.  Lawmakers also approved tougher sentences for gun possession by criminals with prior violent or drug felony convictions.  Legislation, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, continues those efforts by rewriting and simplifying the state’s Criminal Gang Enhancement statute, which prosecutors report is too difficult to interpret and navigate.


Currently, prosecutors must prove the group is a “criminal gang;” show the defendant is a “criminal gang member;” demonstrate the gang and/or an individual has committed a criminal gang offense, and establish the group has a pattern of “criminal gang activity.” The revised statute lists the specific offenses considered to be criminal gang offenses rather than asking prosecutors and courts to interpret today’s more vague definition.


“One complaint that is often heard about Tennessee’s current criminal gang statue is that it is difficult even for the most astute prosecutor, defense lawyer or judge to navigate,” said Leader Norris.  “Simplifying this definition goes far in making the law more effective — keeping gang members off the street and out of our communities.”


The offenses proposed were developed with input from prosecutors familiar with the most common crimes committed by gangs in their communities.  This change applies to offenses committed on or after the effective date of the act, while the current language would be left to allow for the use of criminal gang offenses committed prior to the effective date in prosecution and sentencing under this statute.  The bill adds “facilitation of” a criminal gang offense for the purposes of determining a “pattern of criminal gang activity.”


According to 2012 data from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, gang members now outnumber law enforcement officers 2 to 1 in the state.


A separate bill to combat gang violence was approved by the full Senate on Thursday tightening language in the state’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) law to more effectively prosecute criminal gang activity in Tennessee. Similarly, this bill sponsored by Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson (R-Chattanooga), also improves on legislation passed by the General Assembly last year which expanded the definition of racketeering activity under the state’s RICO statute to include criminal gang offenses. That new law made it easier to prosecute gang members and increased penalties for gang-related activities to a Class B felony punishable by a fine of up to $250,000 and/or imprisonment of up to 20 years.


Senate Bill 291 merely lists those crimes of violence specifically and moves that listing directly into the RICO law. This move will prevent any subsequent changes to the state’s gang enhancer statute from affecting RICO prosecutions.


In an effort to bring Tennessee’s RICO law on par with Florida’s law, which provides the national model for prosecuting gang members under racketeering laws, the bill allows investigators to go back five years when looking for predicate offenses rather than the two years under current law.  The most significant change proposed by the legislation deals with the fact that, as written, Tennessee juries can only convict defendants of either the predicate offense or the RICO violation. A predicate offense is a crime that is a component of a more serious offense.  The new law will allow juries to find the defendant guilty of the robbery, rape, narcotics dealing, etc., as well as the RICO violation.


Under the state’s RICO law, law enforcement authorities must show that those arrested are gang members through previous convictions and that they have profited by their affiliation and illegal activity.


“This bill gives law enforcement another tool in their toolbox to fight the epidemic problem we are facing in this state with criminal gangs,” said Watson.  “It is a continuation of legislation from the HamiltonCounty delegation and our Gang Task Force brought last year regarding racketeering and its application to criminal gangs.  It also looks at the best practices in gang laws across the nation to help rid our streets of this scourge.”