In an unusual application of a little-known narcotics law, a Superior Court judge has issued a court order banning drug trafficking at an East Los Angeles residence, threatening the elderly owners with the loss of their home if they fail to comply.
Judge Jack M. Newman's order, signed Friday and sought after repeated complaints from neighbors about drug activity at the house, marked the first time a civil narcotics abatement action has been obtained against a private residence in California, city officials said.
"This is an unusual step to take against a private house, but we have unusual circumstances in this case," City Atty. James K. Hahn said. "The police have done all that's humanly possible. They have raided the house repeatedly, but the problem still persists."
Complaints About Visitors
Neighbors of the house, owned by Angel Ortiz, 67, and his wife and shared with the couple's three granddaughters, complained of a constant stream of traffic to the house. They told authorities of seeing visitors leaving the home in a "dazed" state, occasionally passing out or urinating on nearby lawns.
City officials say that since December there have been 20 arrests for PCP and heroin intoxication, two burglaries, one assault with a deadly weapon and five stolen cars along the four blocks of Cyril Avenue--much of which they believe is attributable to drug dealing at the residence.
The Ortizes' granddaughters, who range in age from about 18 to 30 but who were not identified, all have arrest histories for sales, possession or being under the influence of narcotics, city officials said.
"I got a couple neighbors here that have bought homes, and they're about ready to sell. Why should we sell our homes just because of these creeps?" said a local Neighborhood Watch leader, who asked not to be identified. "We want the neighborhood back."
'Reign of Terror'
Said Hahn: "What we have here is unrepentant criminal activity--in fact, a reign of terror for the neighborhood--by people who are thumbing their noses at law enforcement. We're going to get the problem corrected or we're going to get this house vacated."
Ortiz and his wife were alerted of the court hearing Friday, but chose not to appear, said Deputy City Atty. Mary House, who obtained the order. "Mr. Ortiz said, 'Yeah, I know it's happening, but I can't do anything about it,' " House said.
None of the family members could be reached for comment.
The 1971 Controlled Substances Abatement Act, which mirrors the much older Red Light Abatement Act designed to control prostitution, specifies that "a place" cannot be used for the purpose of selling, storing, giving away or manufacturing controlled substances.
Los Angeles became the first city in the state to utilize the law with civil actions filed against two South-Central commercial establishments, the Adams Motel and the Bomco Motel, obtaining preliminary injunctions prohibiting further drug trafficking, House said.
Under the law, the Ortiz family can be found in contempt of court if it violates the temporary restraining order, and faces up to six months in jail or a $2,000 fine if convicted.
Evidence Less Stringent
Once the case goes to full trial, the Ortiz home can be confiscated and sold if it is found that repeated drug activity has occurred at the residence and the burden of proof in this civil case--a preponderance of the evidence--is much less stringent than the standard in criminal trials, which must establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
House said the city attorney's office several months ago investigated the possibility of using the same law against the highly fortified "rock house" distribution centers for cocaine in the city.
"However, the tenants in those locations are so fly-by-night, it's difficult to give service of process in a civil action to people who are unconnected with the property other than to sell drugs," she said. "This is a family who owns the house and actually lives there."
Newman set a Sept. 24 hearing on a preliminary injunction to extend Friday's temporary order.