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California gang cases: How is a gang defined?

It is not uncommon for many of California's youth to be arrested for gang-related activities. Gang cases are not taken lightly, regardless of the alleged offender's age. While there are numerous young individuals in gangs, not all are. It is possible to fight such allegations.

The word gang has many definitions. According to the National Institute of Justice, there are both federal and state definitions. There are also a variety of gang types and age groups that are also described differently. The Department of Justice and the Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency both use the federal gang definitions, which include:

  • A group of three or more individuals
  • A group of people who adopt a group identity
  • A group of people who purposely engage in criminal acts
  • A group of people who use violence and/or intimidation to get what they want

Gang definitions on a state level may vary. In California, the definition is similar to the federal guidelines for identifying these group members. This includes the association of three or more individuals, a group which identifies under a sign or symbol and those who collectively participate in criminal acts.

There are also specific guidelines for identifying juvenile gang members. This, again, includes the specification that a gang is made up of three or more people. However, for juveniles, those members must be between the ages of 12 and 24. This group must have some level of organization, and members of the group must identify themselves as gang members.

Juveniles who are accused of gang-related crimes could face some pretty significant consequences under California laws. Due to the nature of gang activity, alleged gang cases are treated seriously in juvenile court. Having a strong understanding as to how the state defines these alleged offenders can be useful in fighting any accusations of gang activity. After all, many youth may make mistakes while growing up, and others simply may find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. This does not make them gang members, and no assumptions should be made to the point where they are treated as such in court, before any proof of gang membership is established.

Source:, "What Is a Gang? Definitions", Accessed on June 6, 2015

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Former Criminal Prosecutor With Proven Results