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ORANGE COUNTY

Caution Marks Crime-Fighting Eviction Tool

Law: Costa Mesa may follow Buena Park in making landlords boot tenants arrested as drug or gang suspects. But some label such measures unconstitutional.

July 05, 2001|JASON SONG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Costa Mesa is considering becoming the latest city in the county to adopt an ordinance that would require landlords to remove tenants who have had drug- or gang-related scrapes with the law at their residences.

Whether that happens will depend in large part on how city officials interpret the legacy of Buena Park, which adopted a similar measure in 1999.

Buena Park civic leaders tout their law--which requires removal of tenants who have been arrested on gang or drug charges while on rental property grounds--as one of the main reasons the quality of life has improved in their city. They point to the 128 times the ordinance has been used as evidence that dangerous people are being forced out of the city. They also note that only one lawsuit has been filed against it.

But civil rights groups and defense attorneys say the law is unconstitutional. Furthermore, they predict that the lawsuit, recently filed by a landlord and awaiting a trial date, will prove to be the ordinance's downfall.

Buena Park officials credit the ordinance with helping to reduce crime rates. In 1998, the year before the ordinance was adopted, there were 2,447 major crimes--a category that includes rape, murder and armed robbery--reported to the Buena Park Police Department. In 1999, there were 1,904, a 22% drop.

"This is one of the best ordinances that's ever been passed in Buena Park in terms of lifting the quality of life," Police Chief Gary Hicken said.

A similar law went into effect in La Habra but has been used only six times.

The ordinance works like this: Letters are mailed to landlords informing them that their tenant was arrested on drug charges or for a gang-related offense on the rental property.

A follow-up letter is sent several weeks later ordering the landlord to remove the tenant, either through an eviction or other legal action. The police can require everyone living in the rental unit to be evicted, even if they were not arrested for a crime.

Landlord Charges Rights Are Usurped

But in a lawsuit filed in late March, Donald Cook, who owns a home in the 7200 block of 9th Street in Buena Park, contends that the law is unconstitutional because it infringes on his right of free speech, freedom of association and procedural due process.

One of his tenants was arrested on suspicion of possessing a drug pipe in August 2000, Cook said. While he doesn't believe the charges, even if true they aren't a good enough reason to remove his clients, he said.

Cook, a self-employed businessman, said he cannot afford to evict his three tenants and lose their $1,100 a month rent. Furthermore, Cook included no clauses about drug- or gang-related offenses in the rental agreement and fears being sued by his tenants if he evicts them.

"They're good tenants; they pay the rent on time," Cook said. "Why should I jeopardize that?"

Some legal experts say Cook is sure to win his suit.

"It's a case of city leaders thinking, 'I'll pass what I think works and I'll let the courts sort out the constitutionality later,' " said John Eastman, an associate professor at Chapman University Law School. "My guess is [the ordinance] will be struck down pretty quickly."

Buena Park officials say they aren't concerned.

"I believe as an American that government must behave in a constitutional manner, and when people are claiming otherwise, that's something that has to be taken seriously," said Greg Kunert, who represents Buena Park in the suit. "But in this case, I think the city is on solid ground."

Costa Mesa officials, however, are trying to guard against such lawsuits even as they debate whether to adopt the ordinance. When city employees introduced an early version of the ordinance in May that would have required removal for a drug- or gang-related arrest, the council voted 3 to 2 to send the proposal back to staff for refinement.

The majority of council members asked that the law apply only to tenants who have been convicted of crimes because of worries over its constitutionality. But some also questioned whether Costa Mesa, recently named one of the 30 safest cities of its size in the United States by the FBI, even needs such an ordinance.

"Overall, anything that allows us to rid our city of crimes is a positive, but I'm not sure we need to go this far," Councilwoman Linda Dixon said.

Mayor Libby Cowan is also nervous that overzealous residents might use the ordinance to accuse innocent people of gang or drug activity.

"There's a lot of presumption by people in the community that just because a group is standing on a corner, that they're a gang," she said. "My concern is that perception and free association would be endangered."

The Costa Mesa council is expected to take up the revised ordinance in several weeks.

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