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California Supreme Court Addresses CDCR Gang Associate Validation

In October 2012, the California Supreme Court reversed a grant of habeas relief by the Court of Appeal, which had interpreted a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) regulation regarding the validation of a prisoner as a gang associate. The Supreme Court held the appellate court had failed to accord due deference to the CDCR’s interpretation of its own regulations. On remand, the appellate court again granted habeas relief.

The CDCR validated state prisoner Elvin Cabrera as an associate of the Mexican Mafia (EME) in 2008, following an assault on prison employees in which Cabrera was not involved. By regulation (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 15, § 3378), the validation of a prisoner as an “associate” requires at least three independent source items indicative of association with a known gang member or associate, with at least one of the sources providing a “direct link” to a current or former gang affiliate.

Cabrera’s validation was based on the discovery of four photocopied drawings in his cell that contained symbols distinctive to EME; two of the drawings were signed by validated EME members. Cabrera, who was enrolled in a hobby craft program, possessed “a large quantity of drawings from a variety of artists.” He denied gang membership and did not have gang-related tattoos.

Cabrera filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus challenging his gang validation; however, the Kern County Superior Court held that the drawings signed by EME members constituted “direct links” to gang affiliates.

The Court of Appeal disagreed, holding that a “direct link” in this context requires a “reciprocal (i.e., mutual or two-way) interaction between the two individuals forming the relationship” – and that the CDCR had failed to provide evidence of any such mutual relationship involving Cabrera and validated gang affiliates. Thus, the appellate court granted habeas relief and directed the CDCR to expunge Cabrera’s validation as an EME associate and to remove him from SHU housing based on his validation.

On review, the California Supreme Court held that the regulation at issue was a quasi-legislative rule promulgated by the CDCR pursuant to the department’s lawmaking power delegated by the legislature. The Court of Appeal’s “decision to grant relief rested on a disagreement with the CDCR over the interpretation of the CDCR’s own regulation,” the Supreme Court found, yet such quasi-legislative rules are subject to “very limited” judicial review.

According to the CDCR, “the regulation’s requirement of a direct link does not require evidence of a reciprocal or two-way interaction between the inmate and the validated gang affiliate in these circumstances”; however, the appellate court had “offered neither deference to the [CDCR’s] view nor acknowledgement of the agency’s expertise in prison management.” As the Court of Appeal’s decision “rested on the erroneous assumption that a direct link in this context required proof Cabrera had a mutual relationship with a validated gang affiliate,” the Supreme Court reversed.

The case was remanded to the appellate court to consider whether the evidence was sufficient, under the regulation as properly construed, to uphold Cabrera’s validation as a gang associate. See: In re Cabrera, 55 Cal. 4th 683, 287 P.3d 72 (Cal. 2012).

Following remand, the Court of Appeal reconsidered the regulatory requirement regarding a “direct link” and again granted habeas relief. “Applying the deferential ‘some evidence’ standard of judicial review,” the appellate court wrote on June 11, 2013, “we conclude that two of the photocopied drawings, containing part of the names of EME affiliates as the artists, do not support a finding that Cabrera had an ‘association’ (i.e., a loose relationship) with a gang-affiliate artist that constituted a ‘direct link’ (i.e., a connection without interruption) as required by section 3378, subdivision (c)(4).”

Accordingly, the Court of Appeal ordered the CDCR to “(1) void and expunge the 2008 validation of Elvin Cabrera as an associate of the Mexican Mafia prison gang, (2) report the expungement to all gang-related law enforcement databases and clearinghouses to which the original validation previously was reported, and (3) cease housing Cabrera in the security housing unit based on the gang validation.” See: In re Cabrera, 216 Cal. App. 4th 1522 (Cal. App. 5th Dist. 2013), as modified, 2013 Cal. App. LEXIS 523 (Cal. App. 5th Dist. July 1, 2013), rehearing denied.

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