How Gangs Use the Justice System

Gang members have found inventive ways of bringing drugs into the courts. Perhaps the most offensive method of delivery was to enlist the help of court officers.

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The Torrance Courthouse is a respected arm of the Los Angeles County criminal justice system where officers of the court honorably represent the people of California. Although seemingly always operating at maximum capacity, it is efficient and productive with no hint of corruption.

One day in 1997, an honorable judge sat at his bench, honorably dispensing justice. Two prison gang detectives and I approached the honorable bailiff and asked to speak to the judge. We had learned that several grams of heroin were to be brought to the court and delivered to a specific Sureño jail inmate (Southern California Hispanic gang inmate). The heroin was to be transported back to the county jail by the Sureño and given to his masters from the Mexican Mafia prison gang. In the jail tar heroin would bring three times its normal street value. We planned to arrest whoever was involved.

We had learned about the drug smuggling plot through a state wiretap on the county jail gang module and the disciplinary section, or "hole" as the inmates call it. During previous months, we had intercepted several of these "court to custody" drug loads. By the time the state wiretap was shut down, we would receive commendations from both the LASD Narcotics and Custody Bureaus for interdicting more drugs from custody and the courts than had been seized from these areas over the last 20 years.

A regular pattern developed wherein gang members in the jail gang module made up a daily "court list" containing the names of loyal Sureño gang members who were scheduled for court appearances, the courts they were scheduled to appear in, and the dates of their appearances. The Mexican Mafia bosses would select a gang member, a court, and a date for the drug delivery. The inmate would then direct his defense attorney to request a court order for civilian court clothing.

The courts routinely grant inmates this clothing request so as not to prejudice the jury during the trial by requiring the inmates to wear their jail uniforms. This was the argument, but the gang members really didn't care about what they wore. A female Sureño on the street would then purchase the clothing. She would spread several grams of tar heroin between two pieces of paper and iron it into very thin sheets, then cut it to fit as sizing and sew it into the collar and cuffs of a shirt and the waistband, zipper, and cuffs of the trousers. The clothing was then carefully pressed and hung on hangers for court.

When the clothing was presented in the court along with the accompanying court order, normally it was inspected by the bailiffs and passed to the inmate. Over the wiretap we heard code words disguised as football scores, "Shorty made a touchdown for six points" meant that six grams of heroin was delivered in this manner. Most of the heroin in our jail system was passed by this method.

Sometimes the Sureños would use another method. A loyal gang member on the outside would be given a load of drugs, which he carefully wrapped in rubber balloons or the fingers of rubber gloves and "keaster stashed" them (hid them in his rectum). The Sureño would then turn himself in for a minor warrant or probation violation. Once inside the jail, he would pass the drugs to a runner who would deliver them to the Mexican Mafia. Failure to deliver the drugs placed anyone involved on the "green light" hit list.

Perhaps the most offensive method of delivery was to enlist the help of court officers. During the state wire tap investigation a search was made of the Pasadena Court lock up. Drugs were found duct taped to the bottom of a table in a court holding cell. In an effort to determine who had hidden the drugs there, and why, a hidden video camera was set up. The video revealed that a jailer was ordering female inmates to Pasadena court and was having sex with prostitutes in the lock up. The hookers were happy to oblige him and he paid them off with drugs that he carefully taped under the table. The drugs remained hidden in the lock up cell so that the women could retrieve them before returning to jail.

In the 1970s, a California judge who worked for the Mexican Mafia prison gang was exposed when Mexican Mafia heavyweight Mundo Mendoza defected. Lawyers associated with the Prison Law Collective and the National Lawyer's Guild had been acting as delivery boys for the prison gangs, smuggling hit lists, weapons, and drugs. In 2000, an Orange County prosecutor was caught on a wiretap working for drug dealers associated with the Hell's Angels, Nazi Low Riders, and Aryan Brotherhood.

In yet another nefarious incident, the "suspect" was a well-known defense attorney in the Torrance courthouse. When we briefed the judge and bailiffs, the judge told us he had seen the lawyer in an earlier appearance and that he had appeared to be under the influence of an opiate himself. The lawyer filed a motion and requested that he be allowed to give the defendant a copy. The bailiff examined the blue cover and legal documents, but found nothing suspicious. My detectives pushed the bailiff's supervisor to look harder. After several more inspections the supervisor noted that one of the legal pages was unusually thick. The heroin had been ironed between two pages that were glued together.

The defense attorney was arrested and immediately complained that he had no idea that the drugs were there. The judge had also been correct in his earlier observation of the suspect: he was a heroin user. Unfortunately, the attorney was released because the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office did not want to file charges saying that we could not prove that the attorney was aware of the presence of the drugs in his legal papers.

We served a search warrant on the attorney's apartment accompanied by a "Special Master"—a lawyer provided to oversee the police to protect from search and seizure any items that might be considered attorney-client privileged material. Even with the restrictions imposed by the "Special Master," several xerox copies of the same legal page used to secret the heroin were seized as evidence; a passport showing numerous trips to Central and South America was also found. The crime lab later identified the suspect's fingerprint in the flattened tar heroin between legal pages.

The DA's office reluctantly filed drug possession charges against the attorney. A few weeks later, without notifying my unit, an ex parte closed hearing was held and the drug smuggling lawyer's charges were dropped "in the interest of justice."

Remember that just because someone wears a uniform, a robe, or expensive suits, it doesn't mean that they can't become compromised or corrupted to become a tool of gangs. Look for the 13 ways gangs use the justice system against us.



1.         Use of discovery motions to find witnesses, victims, and informants to threaten and/or kill them.

2.         Use of continuous delays in trial to remain in county jail to conduct criminal business or in an attempt to escape.

3.         Use of court clothing exchanges to deliver drugs.

4.         Use of jail telephones to find information, such as booking numbers or court dates, on enemy targets to kill them.

5.         Use of special visits from gang member "witnesses" accompanied by an attorney, to avoid the screening process and pass drugs and messages.

6.         Use of attorney privileges to avoid mail inspection by jail deputies and prison staff to pass important messages and order hits.

7.         Use of witness subpoena power to bring gang members from state prisons to the county jail under false pretences in order to have meetings or to kill someone.

8.         Use of child custody and support cases to subpoena gang members to the county jail, in a less obvious way, in order to have meetings or kill someone.

9.         Causing an enemy to be placed on the court list and transported to a county where he is more vulnerable to attack.

10.       The filing of spurious complaints, writs, and appeals to harass gang investigators and delay prosecution.

11.       The use of perjuring witnesses or "Leslie White" type informants to confuse the presentation of a case and possibly cause a mistrial.

12.       The use of unscrupulous bail bonds offices to obtain information on enemies or to bail out prison gang members.

13.       Using the proper status or unscrupulous attorneys and private investigators to facilitate all of the above.

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Sergeant (Ret.)
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