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.

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.

The way the city attorney's office sees it, Lin and Roger Chao (above right), are responsible for some of the mayhem at Mission and 20th streets because they haven't done enough to keep criminals out of their Magic Donuts shop. The Chaos disagree, but paid a fine to get the city off their backs.
Bobby Castro
The way the city attorney's office sees it, Lin and Roger Chao (above right), are responsible for some of the mayhem at Mission and 20th streets because they haven't done enough to keep criminals out of their Magic Donuts shop. The Chaos disagree, but paid a fine to get the city off their backs.
Walter Cooke attorney for Lin and Roger Chao, told the donut shop owners it would be easier to settle the city's lawsuit than fight it to court.
Bobby Castro
Walter Cooke attorney for Lin and Roger Chao, told the donut shop owners it would be easier to settle the city's lawsuit than fight it to court.

"The doughnut shop was a really unfortunate case," the Mission Station's permit officer, Ray Austin, says. "Nobody had anything against the owners whatsoever. Some of the employees of the doughnut shop were involved, but not the owners. They honestly didn't know. Since then, they have been educated, and in order to get it to stop, sometimes it's what it takes. It's not something the owners were doing, it's just a longtime thing. They were caught in the middle of it."

But the Chaos still had to pay nearly $10,000 to the city. Financially, it was safer to settle the case than to continue fighting. "If I had money, I would go to court," Lin Chao says, her eyes darkening. "It's not right that [the city] does this."

There is little question that, in some cases that draw the city's scrutiny, rogue businessmen and property owners are part of the city's crime problem. But there is also ample evidence that, in many cases, shopkeepers and landlords are simply innocent bystanders caught up in the criminal influences that sweep through their neighborhoods.

The City Attorney's Office seems to be having trouble telling the difference.

In May of 1997, a pedestrian was about to use the pay phone at the corner of 23rd and Mission streets when he was stabbed in the head with a pen and robbed. The crime took place at the phone next to the That's It Market, a small, neighborhood convenience store owned by Kamel Karajah.

A day after the mugging, a fight erupted on the sidewalk near the market when someone broke a bottle over the head of a drunken man. A few months later, another fight involving five men wound up inside the store. The store clerk called police, Karajah says, after four men chased their victim into the store and tackled him. A bottle of chardonnay was broken in the scuffle.

All three of those incidents were used by the City Attorney's Office to prove that Karajah and his store are a public nuisance.

Karajah, judging from appearances, is a seasoned businessman. Every evening, he drives to the That's It Market -- often outfitted in pressed slacks, a button-down shirt, and a silver watch -- to help man his store until it closes at 2 a.m. He works the cash register, answers the phone, or stands watch outside near the flower bins, arms crossed.

After emigrating from Palestine about five years ago, Karajah took over the store in 1997. A year later, in December 1998, the city filed its public nuisance lawsuit. Karajah says he was baffled, and enraged. "I start my business, and I want to keep it good," he says. "Everyone, when they start a business, looks to make something for your life and your future, but a lawsuit against your business -- you feel angry."

In its complaint, the city accused Karajah of permitting "injurious, illegal, annoying and disruptive activities" -- such as the sale of alcohol to minors and intoxicated people, panhandling, loitering, and other "annoying activities" -- to occur in and near his store.

The location does not stand out as a major trouble spot in the mind of Mission police Capt. Greg Suhr. But the City Attorney's Office used the mugging and assault incidents, and some citations Karajah had received for allegedly selling alcohol to minors, to bolster its suit.

"We would not have filed the complaint but for the fact that there were arrests and sales to minors and intoxicated people," says Karen Carrera, the deputy city attorney handling the case. "They are required to comply with the ABC [Alcoholic Beverage Control. And the conditions of the store were unacceptable."

But the state Alcoholic Beverage Control -- the agency that hands out and takes away liquor licenses -- had already looked into the complaints against Karajah and decided to take no action because it could find no evidence that the store was negligent.

"It happens by mistake, not because we want to do that," Karajah says of selling alcohol to a minor. "Anybody in business and who puts a lot of money in their business knows it is not wise to sell to a minor. You only profit 25 cents and then you damage your business."

Andrew Gomez, the ABC's San Francisco district supervising investigator, says that Karajah was not punished after a January 1998 incident in which a minor purchased alcohol at the market because he was cooperative in the investigation. Karajah says the improper sale took place during a confusing situation when many people were crowding the counter, including two underage decoys.

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