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Mom & Pop Crackdown 

A city task force is aggressively suing business owners, some of whom are facilitating crime in their neighborhoods. And some of whom are just making donuts.

Wednesday, Mar 29 2000
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A fault line runs somewhere through the intersection of Mission and 20th streets, an imaginary border separating two of the city's more notorious street gangs. During a gang initiation a few months ago, a young girl was raped for several hours in an abandoned, second-story office overlooking the busy crossroads.

The gang battle line is just one reason why the intersection is among the most crime ridden in the Mission. When dusk falls, drug dealers congregate on the corners. Only a block away is Capp Street, a shadowy strip notorious as the final business address for end-of-the-line prostitutes.

The intersection is also infamous throughout the Bay Area as an open market where stolen goods are bought, sold, and displayed unabashedly. In the past, car stereos or tools lifted from construction sites were laid out for inspection on the tables of a doughnut shop at the intersection's southwest corner. Mission police officers told theft victims to go to the doughnut shop -- they'd probably get their stolen property back at a good price, officers joked.

In 1995, Cambodian immigrants Lin and Roger Chao bought that corner doughnut shop. Unaware of just how infamous their new address was, the Chaos say, they set about trying to run a clean, family business. The Chaos, a middle-aged couple with four young daughters, changed the name of the place from Hunt's Donuts to Magic Donuts, and spruced it up with plants and new countertops.

The Chaos say they did what they could about the drug trafficking, violence, and fencing that were entrenched at Mission and 20th. They called police whenever the drug deals or fights threatened to spill into their business. Sometimes, they say, they waited more than an hour for police to arrive.

In the spring of 1999, the city decided it, too, was tired of the unsavory characters hanging around at the intersection, and concluded that it was time to crack down on the perennial crime zone.

The city's solution? Sue the doughnut shop.

In May 1999, the City Attorney's Office brought a public nuisance lawsuit against the Chaos and their landlord, arguing that they hadn't done enough to solve the problems at Mission and 20th. The city's lawsuit alleged that the couple was allowing Magic Donuts to be used for fencing, loitering, panhandling, disturbance of the peace, and "other illegal and annoying activities." The lawsuit claimed that the Chaos "failed to supervise the premises and the employees ... and permitted the unlawful activities to occur."

The couple was advised by the city to hire a security guard, post No Trespassing signs, improve their management practices, and start kicking out drug dealers.

The lawsuit sprang from City Attorney Louise Renne's reinvigorated Code Enforcement Task Force, a collaboration of six city agencies formed in 1991 to snuff out code violations and nuisances among the city's businesses and property owners. Drawing on the resources and expertise of police, code inspectors, and other city agencies, the task force's most potent weapon is the one brought to bear on the Chaos -- public nuisance lawsuits.

For many years, the task force looked mainly at standard-of-living issues, such as targeting slumlords with shabby buildings and overgrown lots. But about three years ago, Renne decided to amp up the process, going after business or property owners who seemed to actually be part of the crime problem. The City Attorney's Office's caseload of investigations has jumped from about 400 to about 550 since 1997, as the task force works to rid the city of things like drug dens, and liquor stores where owners abet neighborhood felons.

More than 100 nuisance lawsuits have been brought against businesses and commercial properties throughout the city, and the aggressive approach has won Renne's office praise from some quarters. It has also generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue every year for city coffers.

But many shopkeepers in high-crime areas say they are being blamed for things over which they have no control -- muggings and stabbings that take place on the sidewalks in front of their stores, and drug dealers who run into their businesses while fleeing police.

Businesses or landlords hit with public nuisance lawsuits typically spend tens of thousands of dollars defending themselves, money that's hard to come by for the owners of a mom-and-pop convenience store. And those sued say they often get caught up in the city's Catch-22, pretzel logic. Records of the calls for help they make to police are routinely used as "proof" that their businesses are criminal havens.

The case against Magic Donuts was typical. Neighbor complaints of shady activity in the area, police incident reports, and records of emergency calls placed to police by store employees were used to show that the doughnut shop was a nuisance. An undercover police officer was even sent into the doughnut shop several times in the early morning hours to try to sell stolen goods to shop employees. Three of the employees bought hot property from the cops, and were fired from their jobs.

Ultimately, the Chaos settled the case with the city in October 1999 by agreeing to hire a security guard, use surveillance cameras, cooperate with the police, and take other crime-prevention measures.

But Roger and Lin are still indignant. They say that they had nothing to do with the crimes that occurred outside their store. They believe the calls they made to the police for help shouldn't have been used against them.

"If anything at 20th and Mission is a public nuisance, it is not Magic Donuts, but rather the entire neighborhood itself," attorney Curtis Dowling, who represented the Chaos' landlord in the case, argued in a court brief. "If anything, commercial landlords and tenants in the area fight to survive as businesses despite the conditions existing outside. And, yet, [the city] apparently blames Magic Donuts for the social blight at the intersection of Mission and 20th."

Even some Mission police officers agree that the Chaos were trying their best to run a clean business.

About The Author

Bernice Yeung

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