January 5, 2013

Wichita police, Kansas AG seek state RICO Act

The state could toughen up its fight against gangs under a proposed anti-racketeering law.

The state could toughen up its fight against gangs under a proposed anti-racketeering law.

The Wichita Police Department has pushed for a state version since a federal anti-racketeering law was used to indict multiple members of the city’s Crips gang in 2007.

That law, called the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, allows officers to indict gang members for participating in a pattern of criminal activity, rather than being limited to prosecuting individual crimes.

The new state law would increase prison time for convicted gang members, law enforcement officials say.

“The key concept here is that the whole is greater than its parts,” said Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who will propose the new measure. “While gangs engage in individual acts of crime, it’s the pattern of crime that poses a threat to public safety.”

Enactment of an anti-racketeering statute was the top recommendation of an advisory group of law enforcement officers in Schmidt’s Gang Free Kansas initiative last year, his office said.

Originally used to prosecute the Mafia, the federal law has seen recent use in fighting gangs across the nation. But Kansas police officers have no access to a similar state law.

The proposed Kansas RICO Act would allow officers to indict gang members for engaging in racketeering activity in a certain time period. “Racketeering activity” can include any act or threat involving murder, kidnapping, gambling, arson, robbery, bribery, extortion, dealing in contraband, counterfeiting and other related crimes.

The law would be used to prosecute documented gang members, not individuals, Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter said.

Officers must establish the person is part of a criminal enterprise of more than three people before pursuing action with the RICO law. They can confirm this by asking the individual, his parents or friends, or by checking law enforcement databases.

“It can be very time-consuming, but very beneficial to the community, because you’re eradicating more gang members at a greater rate,” Easter said. “Fifty or more people can be convicted at one time.”

Wichita Police Lt. Scott Heimerman, who served on a task force to help draft the revised law, said it could be used to prosecute gambling rings or any other form of organized crime.

“It allows officers some teeth in dealing with organized crime in the state,” Heimerman said. “If we can become aware of these issues, we can more adequately deal with them.”

The legislation, originally crafted by Wichita Police Lt. Todd Ojile and Sen. Mike Petersen, R-Wichita, has run into problems in the Legislature in the past.

The bill passed in the Senate 39-0 in 2011and advanced to the House, where it stalled. No votes were taken in 2012 and it subsequently died in a House committee.

One concern lay in the language of the statute, which Schmidt said was considered too broad, potentially allowing its use against unrelated organizations such as anti-abortion groups and commercial hunting groups.

Another concern is that the law included too many crimes, including minor ones, and that convictions would overwhelm prison bed space.

“It all comes down to money,” Easter said. “That’s been one of the stumbling blocks legislators have brought up in the past.”

Schmidt said the bill has been revamped with a shortened list of crimes, geared toward more serious felonies.

“The efforts, though noble, have gotten bogged down in the minutia of the wording,” Schmidt said. “I think all of those concerns will be addressed with the new revision.”

Petersen, who now is on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the 2011 bill was modeled after a Florida law that helped cut back on gang activity in that state. He said overall crime fell after the bill was passed in Florida, which helped reduce bed-space impact.

The Kansas Department of Corrections calculated the Florida law created the need for three additional beds annually, he said.

Rep. Pete DeGraaf, R-Mulvane, said the legislation tentatively has his support.

“I think it would be a great advantage,” DeGraaf said. “We just have to be careful we’re using it correctly. My chief concern is that it help reduce crime in Wichita.”

As of 2011, Wichita had 62 different gang sets, with 2,921 documented gang members living in the area, Wichita police said. The average age of a Wichita gang member was 21 years old, and 368 of the city’s gangsters were under 18.

Don Brown, the attorney general’s communications director, said the measure could especially help curtail gang activity in smaller Kansas towns, such as Dodge City.

Petersen said he is confident about the bill’s chances this year. “Every time it’s been through, it seems it has come back a better bill in my mind. I’m glad we have more eyes looking at it.”

He said this revision returns to RICO’s intended use — going after “the worst of the worst.”

“We don’t want to reinvent the wheel,” he said. “It’s one thing to give law enforcement all the tools, but we need to do it in the best manner possible for the state. You don’t want them to just go out rounding up everybody.”

Contributing: The Eagle’s Rick Plumlee

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