Veshon Shaw’s life changed forever in 2017 when a court placed him and many of his friends and family members in Wilmington under a “gang injunction.” They could no longer be in the same place together or they would be arrested and put in jail. That meant that they couldn’t carpool to work or church, go shopping at the same grocery store, or participate in the same public community activities like playing sports.
The ACLU of North Carolina recently represented Veshon and two other people subjected to the injunction. After we filed a request for a court hearing, Wilmington District Attorney Ben David reversed course and decided to end the injunction, freeing our clients and the other twenty people covered by it from its prohibitions on communicating with one another and being in the same place.
Wilmington officials were able to restrict Veshon’s and others’ freedom in this way because of a 2012 North Carolina law that gave local officials the ability to ask courts to place an injunction against someone they accuse of being in a gang, even if that person has done nothing illegal. Because the law makes this type of proceeding civil rather than criminal, people accused of being gang members do not have the right to an appointed lawyer before having their freedom taken away. Nonetheless, violating the injunction once it is in place, such as by talking to a family member or friend, constitutes a criminal offense punishable by incarceration.
Like other forms of police profiling, the people most subjected to these discriminatory measures are people of color. In fact, virtually every person placed under a gang injunction in North Carolina has been Black or Brown. The injunctions are also generally used against communities struggling with poverty. Our three clients, like most of the people targeted, are young Black men who could not afford to hire a lawyer to defend them against the accusations that they were in a gang and had the injunction entered against them by default.
After Wilmington issued its injunction, Veshon’s brother had to move out of their mother’s house, where they both lived, because he was also named in the injunction. Veshon missed birthday parties, graduations, and even his grandfather’s funeral because other people in attendance were covered by the injunction. When he broke his wrist, he had to wait overnight before he could find someone who was not covered by the injunction to drive him to the hospital. He was often late to work because he could no longer carpool with others covered by the injunction and had to wait for his sister to return from her job and drive him to his night shifts.
“The injunction makes me feel like I have no rights,” Veshon said. “I can’t do normal things in my daily life without being threatened by the police… I grew up feeling very close to many of the other people covered by the injunction. We had always dreamed that our children would grow up feeling like family the same way we do. Now, because of the injunction, I feel like this is no longer possible because I can’t even be with my own family and friends and can’t take my son to play with their children.”
Wilmington’s definition of who is a gang member has been particularly broad and burdensome: their criteria include people who simply live in the same neighborhood as suspected gang members, post photos on social media of themselves with family members who are suspected gang members, and who possess unspecified “gang clothing.” That means that people who have committed no crime other than existing in their family or neighborhood can suddenly be banned from traveling or socializing with others throughout the entire city of Wilmington. If another person subject to the injunction is sitting in a public park, they can’t take their kids there. If they are on a public bus, and a suspected gang member gets on, they’re required to get off the bus and find a different way to get to work or church or school.
North Carolina lawmakers are now seeking to expand and modify this law. House Bill 633 has passed both houses of the General Assembly and is currently in conference committee before it heads to Governor Cooper’s desk. This bill would expand the existing law so that a person would not even have to be named in the initial injunction or have the chance to appear at a hearing for its restrictions to later be applied against them. Violating the injunction could result in up to six months in prison.
New Hanover County District Attorney Ben David, a leading advocate for the injunction, told reporters he got the idea from colleagues in Los Angeles while at a conference for district attorneys. Los Angeles' gang injunction was preliminarily enjoined last year by a federal court in a case brought by the ACLU of Southern California and an earlier, similar gang injunction was found unconstitutional and struck down.
Gang injunctions severely restrict people’s freedom and prevent them from being able to challenge the allegations against them. They are a form of discriminatory policing that has been used almost exclusively against Black and Brown communities. The ACLU of North Carolina is ready to fight these unconstitutional measures at the General Assembly, and if necessary, in court.