Municipal Court Judge David Doi sentenced landlord Vijaynand Sharma on Monday to 20 months in jail for slum conditions in five Los Angeles buildings, calling him a man who "totally lacks any regard for the health and safety of his tenants."
Doi further described the 40-year-old landlord, who was convicted in November of 112 counts relating to violations of health, building, safety and fire codes, as a man "motivated solely by profit," and ordered him to pay $153,000 in fines and penalty assessments.
"I intend by this fine to hurt Mr. Sharma where it may hurt him the most," Doi said.
Sharma's conviction had ended the largest trial--in number of counts--and the longest--six weeks--involving slum conditions in city history. He has been described by City Atty. James K. Hahn as "among the worst" landlords in Los Angeles.
The fine was the largest in a prosecution of a landlord in city history, the city attorney's office said. Only one other landlord has been given a longer jail sentence.
Sending a Message
"I think the message is clear (to slumlords)," said Deputy City Atty. Abraham Khan, who prosecuted the case. "If they think they are going to make a profit off of poor people they may end up having to do some jail time, and may end up having their profits disgorged by the courts."
The largest previous fine was $100,000, levied against Surya Gupta as part of a 1985 settlement of $221,000 that also included tenant relocation fees and reimbursement of city investigative costs. The longest sentence on record was four years, given to South Central Los Angeles property owner Nathaniel Wells. He served a little more than two years and was released from custody this fall.
The bearded, heavy-set Sharma stared straight ahead and said nothing as he was handcuffed and taken to jail. After the jury delivered its verdict Nov. 19, however, he had declared, "I am a victim of circumstances. So was Jesus Christ."
"I'm sure the people feel the court has not imposed enough time," Doi said to a courtroom packed with reporters, city inspectors who had examined Sharma's buildings, and members of Sharma's family. The city attorney's office had asked for a five-year sentence.
"I do not intend to punish him for all the slumlords in the Los Angeles city," Doi said. "I suggest that the time imposed is a strong warning to them."
The five buildings involved in the case all are near downtown Los Angeles, located at 504 S. Bonnie Brae St., 1000 Echo Park Ave., 1616 West 11th St., 1915-17 S. Central Ave. and 3106 West 9th St.
Sharma's trial and conviction had followed a 17-month investigation by the city attorney's slum housing task force. Local agencies had repeatedly cited him for vermin infestations, broken pipes, exposed wiring, faulty smoke detectors, and lack of heating and hot water.
Sharma, according to records, had bought these and 13 other buildings in the city during the last two years. After the trial he said he wanted to sell them all and get "out of California."
Doi imposed the $153,000 fine and 20-month sentence in Los Angeles County Jail as conditions of a three-year probation. He also ordered Sharma to correct all violations of health and safety codes "prior to the sale" of the five properties, and to submit a plan to the court about how repairs will be made. Sharma was ordered to pay all outstanding utility bills as well.
His attorneys immediately filed a notice of appeal, but Doi set bail for the landlord at $250,000. Sharma posted bond and was released late Monday.
Sharma's attorneys, John Heine, and Robert Sheahen , protested the amount, saying the financial burdens on their client were too great. But Doi noted the landlord's public statements that he wanted to leave the state, and cited a Los Angeles County probation report filed in court that listed his income at $90,000 a month. However, Doi set a bail review hearing for Thursday.
The current case marks the city's third conviction of Sharma. He is already on probation from a conviction last year for failing to provide water in two buildings. After an arson fire in another of his buildings in April, he was convicted of a probation violation for fire code violations, and sentenced to 90 days in jail. That case is on appeal.
Another probation violation hearing is pending as a result of an arson fire in early December at a building at 3981 Menlo Ave., which left 168 people homeless.
Heine argued in court that Doi's sentence was a "Pyrrhic victory," because "no one is addressing the missing component, vitamin M, money, to make repairs."