It all began when an Inglewood resident suspected that the tenants in a nearby rental house were dealing drugs.
The neighbor called the owners of the three-unit property, Melvin and Alice Hanberg, to tell them about the suspicious activity at their rentals.
Melvin Hanberg refused to deal with the problem, which he argued was the job of the police.
"I didn't want to risk my neck. I've already fought in two wars," said Hanberg, a retired Army colonel. "I didn't want to serve in a third war--the drug war."
Inglewood police made a series of drug-related arrests at the property, but when they failed to yield any convictions, police decided to take another--and much more serious--action. They referred the Hanbergs' property to the Los Angeles office of the U.S. Attorney, which has sweeping power to seek property seizures and forfeitures on behalf of the government in drug-related cases.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 9, 1992 Home Edition Real Estate Part K Page 4 Column 1 Real Estate Desk 2 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
Mistaken impression--A Jan. 12 article in the Real Estate section ("Drug War Cross Fire") created a mistaken impression that complaints about drug-dealing at a property owned by Melvin and Alice Hanberg were directed to both of the owners. In fact, Alice Hanberg did not learn of the drug-dealing until after seizure of the property by the federal government.
Within several months of the neighbor's phone call, the Hanbergs' property had been seized. A trial court upheld the seizure and so did the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which in its opinion this August noted the couple's "willful dereliction of social responsibility."
The Hanbergs are appealing the case, but for now their $100,000 rental property is in the hands of the federal government.
Like it or not, the Hanbergs and many other landlords have found themselves caught up in the war on drugs.
More and more, owners who avoid confronting or evicting drug-dealing tenants are being sued by neighbors seeking to collect on nuisance claims, by cities seeking abatement and by the federal government, which can seize property used "in any manner or part" to facilitate the commission of a narcotics crime.
Landlords don't have to be personally involved in narcotics trafficking to have their property taken away by the federal government. Tenants suspected of dealing drugs don't even have to be convicted of anything in court. Because these are civil-law seizures and forfeitures, probable cause is all that's needed by federal authorities to initiate a seizure. And, while criminal cases require prosecutors to establish guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt," civil cases have a less onerous burden of proof.
Here are some results from the war on drugs:
--In Sun Valley, owners of a nine-unit apartment complex were sued by the Los Angeles city attorney after police reported 42 drug arrests at the property within 20 months. The owners were ordered to hire uniformed security guards, install high-intensity lighting and post signs warning tenants that they'd be evicted for drug possession.
--A Riverside County couple were recently obliged to evict their drug-using son from his residence. The parents held a first trust deed on the property and evicted their son to avoid losing their interest in the property, which the U.S. Marshals Service was planning to seize.
--In late July, a North Hollywood woman who allowed her home to become a reputed crash pad for drug users was served with a seizure warrant by federal authorities. The seizure of the $270,000 house--less than a block away from James Madison Jr. High School--is being contested by the woman.
As of August, 1991, the Marshals Service reported an inventory of almost 4,600 seized properties for sale or awaiting court action. The properties--concentrated mostly in California, Texas, Florida and New York--were valued at about $687 million.
In the Central District of California--which includes Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside, Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties--the Marshals Service reported an inventory of 368 pieces of real property, valued at about $121 million.
Twelve properties were taken over by marshals in October alone in the Central District, with an estimated worth of $3.91 million.
Seizure--and eventually forfeiture--are usually employed by authorities when other methods don't work. Most law enforcement agencies begin dealing with drug dens by first contacting landlords about fixing up their properties and evicting troublesome tenants.
The police don't suggest seizure unless repeated attempts to work with an owner have failed or where the owner is directly involved in narcotics activity.
Both state and federal law provide for the taking away of property used in connection with drug activity. State cases are handled by a district attorney. Federal cases, which are more common, are handled by a U.S. attorney.
For those landlords who don't cooperate, seizure and forfeiture are perceived as "a law enforcement tool to effectuate a goal," said William C. Cullen, a Los Angeles city attorney and special assistant at the U.S. Attorney's office.
Cullen's job is to oversee federal seizure warrants and get them signed by a U.S. magistrate. "Nothing happens," he said, "without a court order."
After a federal seizure, the government files a forfeiture complaint naming the property (not its owner) as defendant. Meanwhile, property management falls into the hands of the U.S. marshals.