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California court rules gang enhancements can carry life without parole terms

Nate Gartrell, The Mercury News on

Published in News & Features

SAN FRANCISCO -- A gang enhancement murder case that carries a life without parole sentence is not a violation of the United States' prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, a California appeals court ruled this week.

In its 33-page partially published opinion, the 1st District California Appeals Court ruled that a life without parole sentence for 30-year-old David Arce was not an affront to the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Arce was convicted of special circumstances gang charges in the 2014 shooting of Earl Hamilton Jr., which a jury found was committed to benefit a San Pablo subset of the Nortenos that Arce belongs to.

The court rejected Arce's argument that the penal code allowing special circumstances through gang charges was unconstitutionally vague. Arce's appellate attorney argued in part that the law's provision that activity "furthering" a gang's purpose went too far, since it could include "innocent" conduct. The appeals judges said that argument "makes no sense."

"It is difficult to conceive of a situation where a defendant would commit murder to further an 'innocent' gang purpose," appeals court judges wrote. They later added that the statute adequately defines what it means to "further the purpose" of a gang and is therefore "not unconstitutionally vague under the Eighth Amendment."

Gang enhancements to criminal charges -- as well as stand-alone charges, such as "street terrorism" -- have been part of California's penal code since the early '90s. They've recently come under fire, in part because of studies that have found they're disproportionally applied to Latinos and African Americans. San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin has decried them as racist and pledged his office won't use them except in very rare circumstances.

Gang enhancements apply in murder cases when a defendant kills a rival gang member, or commits a murder that serves to make others fear the gang. Prosecutors aren't supposed to file them when a gang member commits a murder over a personal conflict. A special circumstances gang murder case can mean an automatic life sentence without the possibility of parole.

In Arce's case, he was convicted of murdering Hamilton in a 2014 shooting at the now-defunct Green Lantern Bar in Pinole. Hamilton was there with a group that included gang members from North Richmond that rival the Nortenos. Someone else in Hamilton's group yelled out, "f -- San Pablo," and "North Richmond," which prosecutors successfully argued Arce took as a gang taunt.

 

Before he was shot, Hamilton -- who'd been permanently injured from a prior shooting and was unable to run -- reportedly begged for his life. Earlier in the evening, Arce and other gang members retrieved a gun from another part of Contra Costa County after spotting the other group.

Hamilton's murder allegedly led to more violence between the groups; last year, authorities linked the 2018 fatal shooting of Mario Ambriz Jr., 28, to Hamilton's death, accusing two North Richmond gang members of murdering Ambriz in part to retaliate for what happened to Hamilton. That case is still ongoing, with a preliminary hearing set for May.

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