As part of routine investigations in known gang territories, California law enforcement agencies keep records of individuals associated with gangs or with a known member of a gang.  People on the street often refer to this as getting “documented.”  Gang documentation is justified under federal law.  Federal statutes allow police departments to maintain an intelligence system process.   That process includes keeping internal records on known criminals that are not available to the public.

The California Department of Justice creates the guidelines for which California police agencies can document gang members.  In order to be documented, the police must observe the individual participating in three or more gang criteria, as defined by the Department of Justice, within seven years.  If an individual has done any of the following, their actions fall under gang activities and they can be documented:

  • admitting to being a gang member
  • arrested alone or with known gang members for offenses consistent with usual gang activity
  • identified as a gang member by a reliable informant/source
  • identified as a gang member by an untested informant
  • seen affiliating with documented gang members
  • seen displaying symbols and/or hand signs
  • seen frequenting gang areas
  • seen wearing gang dress
  • is known to have gang tattoos

If a current documented gang member does not meet these criteria over seven years, then they must be purged from the database and are no longer considered “documented.”  In practice, a police detective is typically assigned to monitor a certain gang.  Other beat officers in the field create a “field interview” or FI card when they encounter a person who might be a gang member.  If the person meets one of the criteria, such as telling the officer they’re in a gang or displaying a hand sign, the beat officer documents that behavior in the FI card.  The beat officer then gives the FI card to the officer monitoring that gang and cross references it with other FI cards.  If that individual gets enough FI cards to establish the requisite criteria, they become documented.


In the last decade, social media has played an increasingly larger role in law enforcement identifying gang members.  Recent prosecutions have featured a great deal of FI cards that are based solely on social media contacts, photos and posts that the prosecution argues establishes association with other gang members, signs and symbols, and self admission to gang membership.  The prosecution can typically use information obtained from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and all other social media sites as evidence against an individual accused of a gang related crime.


Gang registration is completely different than documentation.  Gang registration is authorized under California law and requires an individual to register with law enforcement as a gang member if they have been convicted of certain crimes or enhancements.  (CPC § 186.30.)  Any registration requirements expire five years after the conviction that resulted in the requirement in the first place.  Failure to register carries a penalty of up to one year in the county jail or up to three years in state prison if the individual has a prior failure to register conviction.


A gang injunction is an order by a court that restrains the activities of a criminal street gang or any of its members.  Typically, if there is imminent danger of irreparable harm, courts will order gang members to:

  • Not associate with or contact other gang members
  • Not be present in the gang’s known territory
  • Not be present in a rival gang’s known territory

If a gang injunction is lawfully ordered, a person who violates that injunction is subject to criminal prosecution for contempt of court.

Learn More About Gang Enhancements and Participation →