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Trial Court Errs in Admitting Gang Evidence

California v. Huynh Court: California Courts of Appeal, Docket: D076559 (Fourth Appellate District), Opinion Date: June 22, 2021. In prior proceedings, defendant Phong Thanh Huynh's conviction on murder and firearms charges was reversed. Defendant was retried on the same charges in 2019. The jury found him guilty of the same charges, and he was sentenced to a term of 25-years-to life in prison for the murder, and a consecutive term of 25-years-to-life for the enhancement of discharging a firearm. On appeal, defendant contended the trial court erroneously admitted evidence that he was a member and the leader of, or had authority in, a gang called Thien Dang. He claimed the gang evidence was not relevant because Thien Dang was not a criminal street gang. Further, he contended there was no evidence that criminal activity was a primary activity of Thien Dang or any member of Thien Dang had ever committed any crime; and that Thien Dang was merely a group of Vietnamese men who gathered to drink, eat, and socialize. Defendant’s principal position was that identifying Thien Dang as a street gang was highly inflammatory and the error was compounded by a hypothetical question posed to the State's gang expert. To this latter point, the Court of Appeal agreed with defendant. Judgment was reversed: "On remand, instead of an 'all' (i.e., the instant case) or 'nothing' (i.e., Huynh I) approach to the admission of such evidence, the trial court as the gatekeeper of the evidence may appropriately limit the admission of gang evidence as relevant to the issues raised by the parties and in accordance with the dictates of this decision."

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