Charlotte gets temporary OK to crack down on gang

mgordon@charlotteobserver.comAugust 24, 2013 

For a year at least, members of a north Charlotte gang are banned from acting like a gang.

On Thursday, Mecklenburg Superior Court Judge Richard Boner approved a wide-ranging preliminary injunction aimed at shutting down the Hidden Valley Kings.

For the next year, gang members can’t be seen with each other or they can be charged with a misdemeanor crime. That includes everything from riding in a car together, to “standing, sitting, walking, gathering or approaching” other known gang members in public.

The injunction, which will be served to each of the accused gang members named in the city’s complaint, prohibits the Kings from holding firearms, drugs and narcotics. It also bans recruitment or initiation of new members.

The goal, police say, is to undercut gang activity in Hidden Valley and other neighborhoods, while also crippling the recruitment of what the Kings call BGs, short for “Baby Gangsters.”

The state’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has already expressed concerns about the city’s crackdown. And an attorney for one of the accused gang members told the judge Thursday that police have not revealed enough reliable evidence to support such a sweeping step.

Boner ruled otherwise. He approved the year-long preliminary injunction against the Kings, saying that a similar case against gang activity had been upheld in California “by the most liberal supreme court in the country.”

Boner did order that some of the city’s rules against the Kings be narrowed slightly. Pending any appeal, the city can come back to court next August and ask that the rules be made permanent.

Mark Newbold, an attorney for Charlotte-Mecklenburg police, described the ruling as a victory for Hidden Valley and other communities wounded by gangs.

“We’re pleased,” he said. “The city’s protection of a neighborhood’s well being and tranquility is of the highest order.”

In making its argument, the city identified almost two dozen westside men and teenagers as leaders and members of the Kings, which police say took root in Hidden Valley some 25 years ago.

At the head of the list is the man they describe as the gang’s leader, Wendell “Face” McCain.

McCain, in dreadlocks and a red T-shirt, walked into Boner’s courtroom a few minutes after the hearing began. Afterward, surrounded by family and friends, he said he is not a gang chief but the founder of “Icee Money,” a music studio in Hidden Valley that produces rap.

He accused the city of “picking on us because we’re from Hidden Valley.”

Police say the studio, which is covered by the injunction, is run by gang members. They say its music videos are a recruiting and intimidation tool for the Kings. As far as the city is concerned, Icee Music’s future is in doubt.

“If it is a legitimate business then it can stay open, but it appears at this early stage it is not,” Newbold said after the hearing. “Once we get the order signed we will take a look at exactly how it is set up.”

McCain said he started Icee Money “to change the outlook of Hidden Valley.”

“They’re taking our positive and making it a negative,” he said outside the courthouse. “None of us are gang members. We’re making music because we want to be rich. We want to make millions like everybody else.”

Some families said they were angry that police were linking their sons’ names and photographs to gang activity without giving them a chance to defend themselves.

“This will not be made permanent. I feel God’s hand on it,” said one woman who identified herself only as a mother of one of those named in the city’s complaint.

Attorney Bree Laughrun, who represented another of those named in the city’s complaint, said the injunction is based on a “low threshold” of evidence, clearing the way for “unfettered discussions on who’s in a gang and who’s not.”

She said the injunction targets Hidden Valley, “a largely minority and low-income community.”

Police, however, say they can link gang members to a drug trade that largely underwrites the purchase of weapons, along with violent crimes ranging from assaults to robberies to murder.

McCain, for example, has a long arrest record, and has pending trials on two felony drug charges.

The legal strategy unveiled in court Thursday originated in Los Angeles. This is the first time it’s been used in North Carolina, made possible by a new gang nuisance law that took effect in October.

Newbold said the new statute include safeguards against racial profiling. To be targeted by the injunction, for example, a group must be involved in felony criminal activity that occurs at least five times during a 12-month period and benefits the gang. The injunction must then be approved by a “neutral judge” weighing the evidence, he said.

Newbold told the judge that the individuals named in the city’s complaint have been linked to widespread criminal activity.

One of those named, Kevin “Kevo” Funderburk, sat at the front of the courtroom while Laughrun argued that he and others were being unfairly singled out.

She told Boner that her client works for Icee Money and that police have not made a credible case linking the studio to gang activity.

“Rap is a genre of music,” Laughrun said afterward. “Just because you sing about something, rap about something, doesn’t mean you’ve gone out and done it. Just because you sing it doesn’t make it true.”

In Funderburk’s case, records show he has 10 pending trials on felony drug charges. According to an affidavit that was part of the city’s motion, undercover police or their informants on four occasions called McCain to buy marijuana.

Each time, the affidavit says, Funderburk was among those who delivered the drugs.

Researcher Maria David contributed.

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Gordon: 704-358-5095

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