Just because you hang out with a group of people does not necessarily mean, legally speaking, you are part of a gang. However, if you find yourself accused of crimes traditionally associated with gangs such as weapons offenses, drug crimes, violent crimes or property crimes, authorities may attempt to enhance the potential penalties by attempting to make you part of a gang.

Whether the charges you face originate in federal or state court could affect the definition used in that attempt. There are differences in those definitions that you may need to know.

Here in California

The California legislature developed the definition of a “gang” that many states now use. Accordingly, a gang requires the following general characteristics:

  • The ongoing group, organization or association must include at least three people.
  • The group may be formal or informal.
  • One of the group’s primary activities must involve the commission of crimes.
  • The members and/or individuals in the group engage or engaged in a pattern of criminal activity.
  • The group has an identifying symbol, sign or name.

Even if you and other individuals were arrested together on suspicion of certain criminal acts, that does not mean you were part of the gang as defined by state law.

At the federal level

The federal government’s definition has similarities to California’s definition, but they are not exact. At the federal level, a gang includes the following characteristics:

  • It must include at least three people.
  • The group uses intimidation and violence in its criminal endeavors.
  • The group’s purpose, at least in part, is to conduct criminal activities.
  • The members identify themselves as a group and use some sort of identifying markers such as a name, clothes, tattoos, slogans, graffiti and more.
  • The group uses its crimes to gain reputation, financial gain and power.
  • The members often get together.
  • The group follows rules for its operation and initiation.
  • The group has an internal structure and hierarchy.
  • The group claims a territory and defends it.
  • The members protect each other.

As you can see, the federal government’s definition includes more detail than does the one here in California. If you face criminal charges and investigators claim you belong to a gang, prosecutors must not only prove the elements of the crime, but also that you belong to a gang. Fortunately, you have the right to challenge the charges and other accusations against you.