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Confiscations Under Anti-Crime Law Draw Fire

November 29, 1998| From Associated Press

OAKLAND — Next month, inspectors, police officers and other city employees will fan out across three of Oakland's most crime-infested areas, towing abandoned cars and ordering residents to remove neglected property.

It will be the second such sweep since officials passed several ordinances last year as part of a plan to reduce crime.

Such cleanup ordinances may eventually be the standard. Marcia Meyers, a deputy city attorney, said every major city in California has contacted her office to get a copy of the provisions.

But neighborhood activists say the city has gone too far.

Ronald Zimmerman, who operates an industrial yard for machine storage, car repairs and bodywork, filed a $6.3-million lawsuit in August claiming that the ordinances violated his rights.

He accused city police and code enforcement officers of illegally entering his property, tagging all vehicles and equipment with blight notices and seizing a bus used by a nonprofit organization. Zimmerman said he was never told why the city considered his property a problem or how to comply with the laws.

"I know 30 or 40 people who have had the same kind of treatment, but can't afford to pay a lawyer, so the city just takes their property," he said.

On Nov. 10, Zimmerman's lawyer, Thomas Ho'okano, filed a similar suit for the Rev. Willie McClinton, who owns a towing business. McClinton alleges that city-authorized workers entered his property without a warrant and towed six working vehicles from his lot.

The suit contends that the city sent McClinton a nuisance notice for only one of the vehicles and, as with Zimmerman, never told how it violated the code. McClinton said he has lost thousands of dollars from the seizure of his trucks.

"This really hurts me," McClinton told the San Francisco Examiner. "I thought I was abiding by the law, and they still came and took my trucks."

Weeds, broken windows and vehicles that looked abandoned probably attracted enforcement officers, said Deputy City Atty. Charles Vose, who was present the day Zimmerman's bus was towed.

"We knew that as we got more aggressive, people were going to push back, and they did," Vose said. "So we'll see what happens."

Mechanic Phil Robertson said police took his used but functional Ford Ranger after it sat parked on the street for just one day. His only recourse is to pay $300 for towing and storage, which he said he cannot afford.

Although some residents believe that the operation may be a crime deterrent, others said the positive results do not justify what they perceive as a threat to due process.

In July, the American Civil Liberties Union joined a suit by resident Sam Horton. Three months later, a Superior Court judge rejected the ACLU's argument that the ordinances violated state laws that mandate car seizures only in the case of a conviction.

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