The operation of criminal gangs in this country is a problem that has been widely reported. As a result, Maryland has specific criminal laws outlawing gang behavior, in addition to traditional criminal laws on such crimes as murder and firearm violations. How the prosecution may prove gang membership was explored by an unreported opinion this month from Maryland’s intermediate appellate court in a case called Kenneth Jones v. State.
The Court of Special Appeals’ opinion indicates that the defendant was indicted for a number of crimes allegedly arising from his involvement in a criminal gang known as the Black Guerilla Family (BGF). At trial, the State called a police detective who qualified as an expert in criminal gang activity. The detective, over objection, was allowed to testify that members of this gang could be identified by, among other things, tattoos that contained certain symbols and words from the Swahili language that were indicative of BGF membership. The testimony of three former gang members corroborated his testimony. A jury convicted Jones of criminal gang offenses among other crimes, including first degree murder and handgun offenses, and he appealed.
The Court first upheld the trial judge’s admission of photographs of the defendant’s tattoos taken while he was incarcerated, ultimately holding that the prosecution was allowed to present evidence of the defendant’s physical appearance. It then analyzed whether the detective should have been allowed to testify as a gang expert. The Court noted that this detective had investigated gangs and their criminal activities for six years, including the BGF. He had previously worked on a gang unit while employed with the Maryland Department of Corrections. He had also attended and taught many police courses involving gangs.
Having found him qualified as an expert, the Court agreed with the trial judge that his testimony was appropriate and would assist the jury in its fact finding. The Court noted that the organization and methods of criminal gangs were not a matter of common knowledge to the general public. Particularly as to identification of gang members by such things as their tattoos, the detective’s testimony would be helpful to the jury. The Court found the detective’s methodology was appropriate and based on his knowledge of gang “tattoos, clothing, language, law enforcement, paperwork, pictures, social media, informants and self-admission by gang members.”
This illustrates how the prosecution can seek to prove violation of criminal gang laws.
Thomas Patrick Ryan is a partner in the Rockville law firm of McCarthy Wilson, which specializes in civil litigation.