Let’s talk about nuisance abatement laws. These are laws cities can use to shut down businesses that appear to draw more than their fair share of the criminal element.
If you’re a fan of asset forfeiture, you’ll love nuisance laws. By abdicating their law enforcement responsibilities, cities can have their lower cost cake and eat your property too. It’s win-win for cities, who love to use laws like this to effectively seize property from citizens who have the misfortune to operate legitimate businesses in high crime areas.
Here’s how it works in Dallas, Texas. The city says business owners must pay for their own security devices and personnel to keep their businesses free of criminals. No business will be compensated for these additional costs. All cops need to do is throw a couple of placards at the business and the city takes it from there. Criminal activity in the area is now the responsibility of businesses in the area. Can’t get criminals to get off your property? Too bad. It’s the city’s property now.
The Dallas police chief has a new tool in her arsenal to force home and business owners to address crime on or near their properties: shame.
On Wednesday, the Dallas City Council passed a “nuisance abatement” ordinance allowing Police Chief U. Renee Hall to identify properties that tolerate criminal activity and try to get the owners to address it.
The new ordinance allows city officials to slap a sign on properties identified as sites of “habitual criminal activity.”
The first efforts involve shaming the business owners for things they likely cannot control. This isn’t the only step taken, though. The placards are the beginning. If the city feels the business owner isn’t doing enough to control crime in the area (surely that’s a law enforcement job?), it can shut the business down and keep fining it for anything and everything it can think of until the business owner is insolvent and has to sell the property.
A South Dallas car wash owner has been fighting the city on and off for most of three decades over its application of nuisance laws. The city has already shut down Dale Davenport’s car wash. City council members claim Davenport is to blame for the crime that surrounds his business. It also claims he’s done next to nothing to solve a problem he didn’t create.
Davenport fought back. He demanded the city turn over 911 call records linked to his business in order to show the problem isn’t his, but the Dallas Police Department’s. After several months of being stonewalled, he has finally obtained the documents he needs to show the city it’s not doing all it can to combat crime. Jim Schutze of the Dallas Observer has been following this fight for years and has the details.
After a two-year tooth-and-nail battle with the city, Davenport’s lawyer, Warren Norred, recently forced City Hall to cough up the official record of 911 calls Davenport has been making all along, begging police to come to his place of business.
It’s not just a few calls scattered over several months. Davenport called the cops constantly, asking them to come deal with the criminal element that seemed to feel it could just hang out at his place of business. The city says crime is Davenport’s fault. The record(s) [PDF] show this is a failure of city agencies, most notably the Dallas PD.
On and on the 911 reports go for 414 single-spaced pages… And that covers only 20 months from 1/5/18 to 9/25/19. Dale Davenport and his father, Freddy Davenport, have been calling the cops to their property for 27 years.
Davenport is suing the city and the hundreds of pages of 911 calls are vital to his litigation. The city wants to take his property, claiming he hasn’t fulfilled his obligations as a citizen and business owner. 414 pages of 911 calls says otherwise. Davenport (and his father before him) have been pleading for the city to clean up a crime-infested area filled with drug houses and the criminal element drawn to this area by the (apparently) unchecked drug trade.
The PD’s newly-formed Nuisance Abatement Team doesn’t appear to have made any impact here, other than posting placards on businesses it believes aren’t doing enough to fight the crime the Dallas PD should be fighting. Paying taxes should entitle you to city services, but only thing Dallas wants to give Davenport in exchange for his involuntary contributions is all the blame for the crime that surrounds him.
Fourteen years ago, a state committee investigation [PDF] found Dallas’ nuisance laws had been abused severely and regularly.
Sworn testimony before the house committee described specific cases of misuse of the statute by city officials such as:
• Targeting of a few, select businesses in high-crime areas, while ignoring more serious crimes occurring on surrounding properties; • Directing businesses to hire certain security personnel with the clear suggestion that hiring these select individuals would diminish the city’s threatened enforcement of nuisance abatement; • Parking a large number of police cars in the parking lot of a business owner as a retaliatory act toward that owner, who had challenged the city’s nuisance action against him and had testified in court on behalf of an individual who was acquitted of charges for resisting arrest while on the business’ property; • Using calls to police requesting assistance by the business as marks against that business in the city’s criteria for evidence of nuisance abatement violations; • Directing a hotel property owner to run criminal history checks on all guests, which is a possible violation of the guests’ civil rights and could potentially subject the business to legal liability; and • Sanctioning a local car wash owner because marihuana was found in the pants pocket of a person working on the property. It was suggested by the city legal department that the owner needed to conduct random pat-down searches of persons working on the property on a regular basis — an act prohibited by law even for law enforcement officers.
To sum up:[T]he committees are gravely concerned that the problems stemming from Dallas’ use of the nuisance laws are the result of a unique and incorrect interpretation of those laws by city officials — wrongly taking the laws to mean that fighting crime is no longer the city’s responsibility but has instead now become primarily the responsibility of private citizens and businesses; and that private citizens can be held strictly liable for crimes that take place on or near their property even when they are not involved in that crime, have taken affirmative steps to prevent the crime, are themselves victims of that crime, and have reported the crime, requesting the assistance of law enforcement agencies. Furthermore, the body of evidence available to the committees also strongly suggests that the city uses the nuisance laws to intimidate, promote cronyism, and inappropriately use law enforcement personnel, specifically uniformed police and code enforcement officers, to deliver not-too-subtle messages of coercion and retaliation to legitimate businesses and property owners who refuse to submit to such tactics.
It’s 2020. Nothing has changed. The city continues to shrug off its responsibilities and put private business owners in the impossible position of clearing out nearby crime without relying on the law enforcement services the city is supposed to provide to taxpayers. I guess the city believes it’s only obligation to business owners like Davenport is to staff 911 call centers. Other than that, they’re on their own until the city shuts them down.
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