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Ninth Circuit Rules Robbery Committed Alone by Gang Member Not Enough for California Gang Enhancement, Despite Testimony of Gang Expert

by Dale Chappell

A law enforcement expert on gangs testifying that a robbery committed by a lone gang member without any evidence tying the robbery to the gang was not enough to support the 19-year aggregate gang enhancement, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held, reversing the denial of a California prisoner’s habeas petition. 

In 2002, Felix Estuarado Maquiz MacDonald (“Maquiz”) was convicted by a jury in California for robbery and weapons charges and was ultimately sentenced, after several appeals and resentencings, to 23 years in prison. 

Part of this sentence included an additional 10 years in prison for a gang penalty enhancement for the robbery conviction, which is the only portion of his sentence at issue before in this appeal. Maquiz fought through the state courts and eventually in a federal habeas corpus petition that landed before the Ninth Circuit.

Maquiz argued that the gang enhancement could not apply because there was no evidence the robbery he committed by himself was connected to his gang, and the testimony of the prosecution’s gang expert was not enough by itself to support the enhancement. 

After Maquiz’s federal habeas petition was denied by Judge Kronstadt in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, the Ninth Circuit granted a Certificate of Appealability and agreed with Maquiz. 

The question before the Court was whether the state trial record contained sufficient evidence to support the gang enhancement. The Court recognized that its authority to grant federal habeas relief to Maquiz is constrained by 28 U.S. C. § 2254(d), which requires that the state court’s denial of his state habeas petition was either “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law” or ‘‘based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence.” Under this ‘‘heavy burden,” the Court said Maquiz must show that not only is the evidence insufficient but that the state court also unreasonably applied the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (1979), which held that evidence is insufficient to uphold a conviction if the evidence, in the light most favorable to the state, would not move “any rational trier of fact” to convict. 

The gang enhancement under Cal. Penal Code § 186.22(b) requires the defendant to have committed the crime for the benefit of, at the direction of, or connected to a gang and that the defendant did so to promote the gang. In other words, the crime must be “gang related.” 

The only evidence that Maquiz’s crime was related to a gang, the Court determined, came from a law enforcement expert who testified he knew Maquiz was in a gang and how robberies are used to support the gang. The expert testified about how Maquiz’s gang had committed other crimes, without linking Maquiz’s robbery to those events. Based on this “evidence,” the jury convicted Maquiz of the gang enhancement. 

But Maquiz (1) committed the robbery alone without wearing gang colors, (2) tried to hide his identity during the robbery, and (3) did not intend for the robbery to benefit the gang, the Court explained. “The [expert’s] opinions and conclusions were purely conclusory and factually unsupported,” the Court admonished.

Testimony from a gang expert, even one who personally knows the defendant is a gang member, is not enough for the gang enhancement, the Court concluded. 

‘‘To hold otherwise would turn the statute into a penalty enhancement simply for committing a crime while being a gang member,” the Court said. 

Because the state trial court lacked “any” evidence to support the gang enhancement, the lower courts’ rulings were an unreasonable application of Jackson, requiring habeas relief for Maquiz, the Court ruled. 

Accordingly, the Court reversed the denial of Maquiz’s habeas petition regarding the gang enhancement. See: MacDonald v. Hedgpeth, 907 F.3d 1212 (9th Cir. 2018). 

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