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In new tactic, L.A. goes after gangs' money

The city won $5 million in cash damages against a gang in the first verdict under a new law.

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New tactic: Rocky Delgadillo, L.A. city attorney, announced Dec. 8, 2008, a suit seeking cash damages against the 18th Street gang.

Ric Francis/AP

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The gang capital of the world is taking a new tack against them: cash damages.

The city of Los Angeles, plagued by 23,000 violent gang crimes since 2004, including 784 murders and 12,000 felony assaults, announced Tuesday that it had won its first civil judgment, for $5 million, against a criminal gang that had dominated the heroin trade downtown for decades.

The verdict could bode well for another first-of-its-kind lawsuit the city filed last month that goes after all assets of gang leaders, not just those associated with their criminal activity. Both suits seek to plow the money back into improving the neighborhoods affected by the gangs through a fund.

"By giving prosecutors more tools to fight gang activity at the local level, we are protecting our communities at the same time [that] we're able to strengthen our statewide anti-gang efforts," said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in a statement released with the announcement of the $5 million verdict against the 5th and Hill gang in L.A.

The civil suits were filed under different amendments to state laws, one passed in 2007 and one in 2008, designed to strengthen authorities' ability to control gangs. The 2007 amendment allows law enforcement to seize assets associated with criminal conduct. But the 2008 law goes even further – it allows prosecutors to collect damages from gang members' personal assets, too.

The December suit against the 18th Street gang is the first to make use of the 2008 amendment.

"We're sending a message to gang leaders across this city," said City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo at a press conference last month. "If you break the law, we will not only find you, arrest you, and put you behind bars, we will also take away your money, your property, your homes, and your cars. Every penny we strip away will be returned to the neighborhoods."

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