COMPTON — After two months of courtroom-style hearings, a City Council majority has voted to declare Francesca Houpe's home a public nuisance because police reported finding three marijuana plants rooted in the backyard.
Houpe, a 34-year-old divorced mother who denied knowing anything about the plants, was instructed to abate the nuisance--presumably by keeping her property free of illegal drugs--or face a city lawsuit that could lead to confiscation of her modest, single-story house at 1613 Killen Place.
Council members Maxcy D. Filer and Jane D. Robbins were joined by Mayor Walter R. Tucker in issuing the administrative order even though the Los Angeles County district attorney had twice ruled that the evidence was insufficient to support criminal charges. For instance, prosecutors said that a key witness against Houpe had refused to take a lie detector test.
"We're not here to put anybody out of their homes," Tucker said moments before the vote Tuesday night. "We're here to give fair, open-hearing warning that this has existed, and if it happens again then it's out of our hands, period. Everybody's been notified in open public."
Hearing Called Unfair
Houpe's attorney, Thomas M. Regele, countered that city officials conducted the hearings, televised over a local cable channel as are all council meetings, in a way that was decidedly unfair. At times, Regele's cross-examination of witnesses was sharply restricted and the council refused to let him question Councilman Floyd A. James, who has been accused of fueling the proceedings against Houpe in an effort to publicly discredit her.
"Let's not try to kid ourselves," said Regele. "The fact of the matter is that although the city (public nuisance) ordinance . . . attempts to make this an impersonal hearing about a piece of property in the city of Compton, in fact it is my client who is on trial here. . . .
"It is my client's character, honor and integrity which this city council is judging here tonight. . . . It is my client's reputation in the community, as publicized through these hearings over the cable network, that is being judged by this council tonight."
Election Fraud Case
Houpe was arrested last August, shortly after she testified against James in an unrelated felony election fraud case still pending in Superior Court. James--who has pleaded innocent--is charged with buying votes during his bitterly fought 1985 reelection campaign by giving record albums to electors in return for their pledge of support. Houpe had received one of the albums.
During the nuisance hearings, police officers confirmed that it was James who had first told them that marijuana was growing in Houpe's backyard. And City Atty. Wesley Fenderson Jr. acknowledged that the councilman telephoned him and discussed launching the nuisance action.
James has denied any impropriety and voluntarily abstained from taking part in the council hearings.
Nevertheless, state prosecutors were so concerned about James' role in the nuisance case that they indefinitely suspended a proposed plea-bargain that would allow him to admit to a misdemeanor violation but avoid a costly felony trial that might strip him of public office. The next court appearance in that case is scheduled for Jan. 22.
"I'm not surprised (by the council decision) one single bit," Houpe said after the vote. "When I testified against Floyd James I expected some sort of retaliation because that's what they do. . . . It's obvious that they set me up all along."
Regele said: "I think the whole hearing and the procedure was a travesty and a mockery, really, of our whole judicial system." He said Houpe may file a federal civil rights suit against the city because the nuisance action caused her to lose one of two jobs she has worked at in recent years to support her two daughters.
"I think there's every reason to believe or suspect that there was foul play involved (in handling the case). And in any event I think the system was tainted by them going forward."
Houpe said she did not testify on her own behalf because Regele advised her not to speak publicly until he was absolutely certain that no criminal charges will be brought in connection with her arrest.
At the same time, the council agreed to discard the testimony of businesswoman Victoria Adams, who claimed to have seen the marijuana in Houpe's backyard. Adams, who refused to take a lie detector test, failed to show up for one hearing at which she was scheduled to be cross-examined by Houpe's lawyer. Regele argued that there was no evidence that Houpe personally knew of the marijuana plants, much less took part in their cultivation.