COMPTON — The City Council rebuffed a threatened lawsuit late Tuesday and proceeded with a public hearing to decide if the home of Francesca Houpe should be declared a nuisance because police reported finding three marijuana plants growing in her backyard.
With 19 witnesses expected to deliver several hours of testimony, the council postponed the start of questioning until 4 p.m. next Tuesday. Earlier in the evening, attempts to avert a hearing altogether broke down when lawyers for Houpe and the city were "unable to work out a compromise," City Atty. Wesley Fenderson Jr. announced.
Thus, the council set the stage for a series of protracted sessions that, apart from deciding the charge against Houpe, are likely to explore the role of Councilman Floyd A. James in the case. Houpe has accused James of initiating her arrest and prompting the nuisance proceedings because she is a witness against him in a pending criminal election fraud case.
The council hearing could also ultimately test the legality of the city's year-old nuisance abatement ordinance. The Compton law allows the council to conduct such hearings as the first step in a chain of actions that could lead to the confiscation of any property used in "selling, serving, storing, keeping or giving away" illegal drugs.
"I don't think the City of Compton has the power to enact such an ordinance," said Thomas M. Regele, a lawyer who is defending Houpe. He argued that only a court has the authority to conduct such an extensive examination that includes reviewing evidence and taking statements under oath.
"You are holding a quasi-judicial hearing here," Regele said, "that is open to the entire city" and "publicized through the cable (television) channel. . . . "
Faces Difficult Choice
Because the District Attorney's office still hasn't decided whether to file criminal charges against Houpe, Regele said, she is faced with either being unable to defend herself by taking the witness stand or having to give up her Fifth Amendment protection against risking that her own statements might used against her.
As Houpe sat nearby with her daughters and nephew napping through the late-night meeting, Regele said a city hearing would "seriously violate my client's constitutional rights." By going ahead, he warned, the council is "subjecting itself to a (federal) civil rights action . . . a potential lawsuit with (financial) damages that should concern the city and its taxpayers."
In reply, Fenderson told the council that Regele was "misreading" the city ordinance. "This is basically an investigatory hearing . . . an informal hearing" not at all intended to preempt the kind of court proceeding that would still be required before the city could confiscate Houpe's property, Fenderson said.
Councilman Maxey D. Filer, who works as a law clerk, agreed and asked the council to reject Regele's request that the hearing be stopped. The vote was 4-0, with Councilman James abstaining.
Houpe was arrested several weeks after she testified against James at a preliminary hearing on election fraud charges stemming from his 1985 campaign. In part, James is accused of buying votes by giving record albums to voters in return for their pledge of support. Houpe said she was among those who received an album.
Houpe denied any knowledge of the marijuana and accused James of trying to harass her by initially alerting police to the plants in her yard, and later discussing the matter with city legal officials before they persuaded the council to launch a formal nuisance proceeding.
James has countered by saying he contacted police only after receiving a complaint about the marijuana from Victoria Adams, who operates a local pool cleaning firm that serviced Houpe's pool. Adams and an employee, Charleston Gray, are expected to testify against Houpe.
Of the 18 nuisance cases considered since the ordinance was enacted last year, Regele said, Houpe's is the least serious and the only one that doesn't involve "a sale of drugs to police."