Neb. high court upholds new anti-gang law

Monday, December 3, 2012

OMAHA, Neb. — The Nebraska Supreme Court has upheld a relatively new Nebraska anti-gang law challenged by an Omaha man who styled himself as a mobster straight out of the television series “The Sopranos.”

The state’s high court also ordered in its Nov. 30 ruling State v. Scott  that 23-year-old Steven Scott be re-sentenced, likely resulting in more time behind bars.

Scott was convicted last year of second-degree assault and use of a deadly weapon for attacking a former roommate with a hammer, and was sentenced to four to five years on each count. He also was the first person to be convicted in Nebraska of unlawful membership recruitment into an organization or association that engages in criminal acts, a law passed in 2009 as part of a package targeting gang violence. He was sentenced to one to two years on that count, with all the sentences to be served at the same time.

In his appeal, Scott had argued that the law infringes on a person’s rights to free speech and assembly. The Nebraska Supreme Court rejected that argument on Nov. 30, saying the law does not criminalize mere recruitment, but specific threatening or violent behaviors to recruit or retain members.

“We are pleased that today’s ruling affirms the scope and reach of Nebraska’s anti-gang law complies with the Constitution,” Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning said in a written statement.

An attorney for Scott did not return a message in time for this story.

Scott’s case began when his high school friend, Samuel Kelley, was kicked out of his parents’ home and moved in with Scott in 2009, according to court records. Kelley told authorities Scott was obsessed with the HBO mafia series, “The Sopranos,” and investigators found the walls of Scott’s apartment plastered with posters from the show.

Scott, who grew up in a wealthy west Omaha neighborhood, gathered a group of high school friends to create a group he often called “the family,” court records show.

Scott tried to recruit Kelley to join the group, Kelley told investigators. Kelley said he sold small amounts of marijuana for the group for the month he lived with Scott, but stopped after joining the Army for fear it could jeopardize his future.

Kelley said Scott soon demanded $300 from Kelley, but Kelley left for basic training without paying. Shortly after returned to Omaha nearly a year later, Kelley was attacked by someone wielding a hammer as he and a friend were leaving a party, prosecutors said. Kelley and his friend fought off the attacker, whom they identified as Scott. Kelley needed six stitches in his forehead and two staples for a wound to the back of his head.

Scott’s appeal sought a new trial based on errors he claimed the Douglas County District Court made, including not finding the unlawful recruitment law to be unconstitutional. His attorney, Steve Lefler, argued that the law is overly broad and could affect constitutionally protected speech and gatherings.

On Nov. 30, Nebraska Supreme Court Judge Lindsay Miller-Lerman wrote: “Simply asking or peacefully encouraging a person to join a group would not constitute coercion, intimidation, threats, or the infliction of bodily harm.

“Furthermore, the statute does not target intimate or expressive associations but instead focuses on associations for which members engage in specified criminal activities, and the statute requires that an individual charged under the statute must be aware of such activities.”

Scott had also argued that his sentences were excessive, a claim that was also rejected by the state’s high court. However, it did find that the trial court had erred in ordering Scott’s unlawful recruitment and assault sentences to be served at the same time as his weapon-use sentence, saying state law requires the weapons conviction sentence to be served after others.

The high court ordered that Scott be resentenced so that his weapons conviction sentence runs consecutively to the other sentences.

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