Stuck in the Thicket: Struggling with Interpretation and Application of California's Anti-Gang STEP Act


Martin Baker


California’s Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act (Penal Code Sections 186.20 et seq.) was enacted in 1988 in response to a perceived “state of crisis . . . caused by violent street gangs” throughout the state. The “STEP” Act created a distinct crime of active participation in a criminal street gang, as well as providing enhanced penalties for any crime committed with the intent to facilitate criminal gang activity.

Since its enactment, the poorly drafted Act—described by the California Supreme Court as a “thicket of statutory construction”—has produced an array of conflicting and vague appellate opinions. This article examines the interpretive and constitutional problems inherent in the STEP Act as revealed by recent case law, and proposes ways in which the Act might still be applied constitutionally and consistently.


Criminal Law | Criminal Procedure

Date of this Version

August 2006