In a recent decision by the California Court of Appeals, it was held that the trial court erred in admitting irrelevant and highly prejudicial gang evidence of the defendants’ membership in a motorcycle club, where there was no evidence that the club was a street gang or a criminal enterprise, and where the prosecution offered this evidence in its case-in-chief primarily to show defendants’ criminal disposition to commit murder. (People v. Memory (March 5, 2010) Case No. Co54422.)
In California, evidence that defendants are members of a certain street gang is relevant to prove identity of those individuals suspected of violating the law. Moreover, gang evidence is relevant and admissible when the very reason for the underlying crime is related to gang activities. In Memory, however, the prosecution offered gang related evidence that the defendants were members of the Jus Brothers motorcycle gang. The prosecution wanted to show that membership in this gang required the members to carry knives and to fight when challenged by other people.
The court held that evidence of gang membership could not be introduced to prove intent or culpability of the defendants. The court found the evidence to be irrelevant. The evidence could not be admitted at trial where its sole relevance was to show defendants’ criminal disposition or bad character as a means of creating an inference that the defendant committed the homicide. By admitting this highly inflammatory and irrelevant evidence, the trial court committed reversible error resulted in a miscarriage of justice requiring reversal of defendants’ convictions.
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