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California Prison Regulation Governing Gang Validation Upheld by Ninth Circuit

California Prison Regulation Governing Gang Validation Upheld by Ninth Circuit


by Michael Brodheim


Last year the Ninth Circuit upheld the constitutionality of a California prison regulation that guides state prison officials in determining whether or not a prisoner should be classified as gang-affiliated.

In California, a prisoner affiliated with a gang – whether as a “member” or “associate” – is deemed to pose a threat to institutional safety and security sufficient to warrant placement in administrative segregation. Pursuant to Cal. Code Regs., title 15 § 3378(c)(4), an “associate” is defined to be a person “who is involved periodically or regularly with members or associates of a gang.” Prison officials must show such involvement through three independent sources of documentation indicating association with validated gang members or associates.

In April 1997, California state prisoner Carlos Castro was validated as an associate of the Mexican Mafia, a recognized prison gang. He was then transferred to the Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay State Prison.

Castro filed suit in federal court in 1998, challenging his validation on due process grounds. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants, which was reversed by the Ninth Circuit in a 2002 ruling that held due process requires prisoners to be afforded a meaningful opportunity to present their views to the critical decision maker in administrative segregation cases. [See: PLN, July 2003, p.17].

Following remand and a bench trial, which “found that Castro did not receive due process in his initial validation procedure,” the district court issued an order requiring prison officials to determine whether or not Castro was currently a gang associate. As a result of that order they conducted a second validation inquiry, and again concluded that Castro was a gang associate in April 2011.

On appeal, Castro argued that the definition of “associate” in § 3378(c)(4) is facially unconstitutionally vague, and therefore the procedure used to validate him as a gang associate did not comport with due process.

Finding no case raising a similar challenge, the Court of Appeals began its examination of Castro’s claims by assuming that the void-for-vagueness doctrine could be applied to prison regulations. Applying the analysis employed in void-for-vagueness challenges to criminal statutes, the appellate court considered 1) whether § 3378(c)(4) defines “associate” with sufficient definiteness that “ordinary people can understand what conduct is prohibited” (e.g., what conduct can be used as evidence of being a gang associate), and 2) whether the regulation does so “in a manner that does not encourage arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.”

The Ninth Circuit concluded that the regulation was not unconstitutionally vague and gave Castro clear notice of the types of evidence that prison officials could (and did) rely on to validate him as a gang associate. It concluded, moreover, that there was “some evidence” – the standard that should have been used by the district court – which showed, at a minimum, that Castro associated with the Mexican Mafia on more than one occasion. For example, he had signed a birthday card sent to a validated gang associate and was implicated in a plot to stab another prisoner. The dismissal of Castro’s suit was therefore affirmed. See: Castro v. Terhune, 712 F.3d 1304 (9th Cir. 2013).


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Related legal case

Castro v. Terhune