Landlords who knowingly allow drug dealers to convert properties into heavily fortified "rock houses" would be committing a felony under a bill sent to the governor early Saturday.
The measure would provide police with a new tool to combat the problem of rock houses, situated primarily in the east San Fernando Valley and South-Central Los Angeles, according to its author, Assemblyman Gray Davis (D-Los Angeles).
The bill, which was approved at 3:30 a.m. by the Assembly on a 78-0 vote, also is directed at drug dealers, who would face felony charges if caught operating a rock house for the sale of certain controlled substances.
Gov. George Deukmejian is expected to sign the bill.
The special problem rock houses pose for authorities was brought to the public's attention earlier this year by Los Angeles police, when they unveiled a new anti-drug weapon in Pacoima. In a controversial move, police began using a motorized battering ram to enter fortified homes and reach suspected drug dealers before they could get rid of the drugs.
Cmdr. William D. Booth of the Police Department said Davis' bill "has the potential of cutting down on the number of rock houses" by making the penalties even stiffer for drug dealers who use them.
Police, who have used the battering ram four times, insist that the armored military vehicle has proven to be an excellent deterrent to drug dealers. The number of drug havens reinforced with features such as steel-encased doors and walls has dropped in the city since the ram hit the streets, Booth said.
Civil rights activists and some community leaders in the East Valley have complained that the ram is dangerous and violates state and federal constitutional guarantees prohibiting excessive force, invasion of privacy and unreasonable search and seizure.
Davis said he has not taken a position on whether the battering ram should continue to be used in law enforcement's war with narcotics dealers. The intention of the bill, he said, is to provide one more way to eradicate a major source of drug sales in inner-city neighborhoods. The bill was directed at landlords, he said, because police have found that most rock houses are rented.
"We have an obligation to preserve our neighborhoods," Davis said. "Nothing can destroy a neighborhood more than a rock house. This bill will hold landlords and drug dealers accountable."
The bill, which was endorsed by many law-enforcement agencies in the state, encountered little opposition in the Legislature. The American Civil Liberties Union did not oppose the final version of the bill, but its attorneys predicted the legislation could impose an unfair burden on landlords who unwittingly rent to drug pushers.
"It puts a landlord in a tough position," Marjorie Swartz, an ACLU lobbyist, said.
"We're going to watch and see how it is implemented," she added.
Rental Payments Test
Davis said property owners who put bars on their windows or fortify their rental property in other ways need not worry about innocently being trapped by the law because of its strict proof test. Besides proving that a landlord knowingly permitted a home to be fortified by drug dealers, prosecutors must show that he received excessive rental payments. Typically, police say, landlords have received exorbitant rents from pushers who have turned their property into fortresses for the manufacture of "rock" cocaine and other drugs.
Davis' bill would supplement existing law that makes it a misdemeanor for a person to rent or lease space to anyone using it for illegal drug operations.
The measure would require a convicted landlord to serve two to four years in prison. A dealer convicted of using a rock house to sell heroin, cocaine or PCP would face a sentence ranging from three to five years.