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Valley Perspective | SECOND OPINION

A Fairer Way of Nuisance Abatement

March 12, 2000|HARRIET K. BILFORD | Harriet K. Bilford and her husband, David R. Bilford, are partners in a Van Nuys law firm

An assistant city attorney whom I trust and respect called me Feb. 18 to tell me that new Los Angeles nuisance-abatement cases involving alleged criminal activity must be reviewed by attorneys in charge of CNAP, the Citywide Nuisance Abatement Program. The attorneys are to evaluate material presented by police, notify businesses of problems and try to obtain voluntary cooperation before moving to a nuisance-abatement hearing.

This is what my law office has been seeking for six years. But with so many promises made and broken, it's difficult to believe our crusade is finally over.

*

The novel practice of using Los Angeles zoning laws to restrict or close businesses blamed for alleged criminal activities in their neighborhoods began locally in 1993. That was when former City Councilman Marvin Braude asked the chief zoning administrator to investigate 11 Van Nuys motels to determine whether they were responsible for prostitution and drug dealing along Sepulveda Boulevard. Three months later, Los Angeles police Capt. James McMurray (since promoted to head of the Internal Affairs Group) urged the zoning administrator to begin nuisance revocation proceedings against Orville's Original Donuts in Van Nuys, ultimately citing hundreds of incidents listed on the Police Arrest and Crime Management Information System, or PACMIS, reports. The shop was blamed for prostitution and virtually every other crime imaginable along Sepulveda and at the intersection where it happened to be located.

I was a customer of that doughnut shop and, with my husband / partner, embarked on a crusade to expose the gross inequities of nuisance-abatement proceedings and the false nature of PACMIS reports and other "evidence" produced at the hearings.

In December 1996, after much urging by myself and others, the Police Commission found the PACMIS reports to be misleading and unreliable. Officers were prohibited from using them as stand-alone evidence and told to comply with other directives. In April 1999, Chief Bernard Parks issued a special order that, along with commission directives, required that officers:

* Always produce documentation to show a specific, direct nexus between operation of the business and the alleged criminal activity.

* Indicate when they were giving a personal opinion and back it with facts and documentation.

* Seek voluntary cooperation in a fair, unbiased manner.

In addition, commanding officers were to be held accountable for any failure to abide by the directives. Unfortunately, officers mostly have failed to abide by the directives, and no one is being held accountable.

An example: During a March 1 City Council appeal involving a liquor store, an LAPD captain asserted that the store was responsible for 195 radio calls, including those involving the public intersection.

In August, public hearings were held involving 17 skid row businesses. Owners of all the targeted businesses--11 hotels and six establishments that sell alcohol--adamantly defended themselves, contending that they were wrongfully blamed for activities on public streets over which they had no control. "Standard" conditions were imposed against all but three hotel owners, including costly 24-hour security guards and an outrageous requirement that all guests and visitors be photographed and fingerprinted. At least one business has since closed; the others are exhausting administrative appeals, as required before they can seek relief in court.

The latest saga, as reported Feb. 17 in Our Times, involves three Studio City motels. Officer John Smith of the LAPD North Hollywood Division is quoted as saying that the Charles, El Royale and Showtime motels "are havens for people who are stealing cars, stealing mail, forging checks and running dope labs" and that the motel owners and managers have turned a blind eye to the criminal activity.

Deputy City Atty. Gretchen Smith, obviously aware of the Police Commission's directives and Parks' special order, properly indicated that "police need to present their information in an entire package before a zoning abatement could begin--and so far we haven't been approached with any reports." Another assistant city attorney told me that these motel owners are cooperating and reiterated that the officer has failed to produce the requisite documentation.

Since 1994, dozens of mostly mom-and-pop, minority-owned or operated businesses have been forced to close as a result of city actions. They have been unfairly targeted, yet they no more attract criminal activity than the city's own parks, buses, streets and other public properties, where crime continues unabated.

With the merging of the zoning administrator's hearings and CNAP, Los Angeles has a mechanism for addressing this problem honestly. If new mandates are followed, legitimate businesses will no longer be used as scapegoats for the LAPD's inability to control crime in the neighborhood.

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