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.

Karajah was also not disciplined after being investigated for possibly selling alcohol to an intoxicated person -- who happened to be a homeless person with a limp -- because an ABC investigation found that "in the interest of justice, there was not enough evidence to substantiate a charge against the licensee," Gomez says.

But just because the ABC didn't punish Karajah doesn't mean the city attorney thinks well of him, and the city has the right to pursue its own case against That's It, Gomez says.

For the fights that started outside his store -- and the improper liquor sale charges that were dismissed by the ABC -- Karajah was sued by the city. He settled the case last September, agreeing to pay $17,500 to the city in penalties and reimbursement to the city attorney and the Police Department for their costs in prosecuting him. After paying his own attorney, Karajah says he spent over $30,000 on the lawsuit. He is still steaming. "They took a lot from my business," Karajah says. "It will take a year or two to cover these things."

Kamel Karajah, owner of the That's It Market, paid over $17,000 to settle a public nuisance suit the city brought against him.
Bobby Castro
Kamel Karajah, owner of the That's It Market, paid over $17,000 to settle a public nuisance suit the city brought against him.
Attorney Michael Spalding represented landlord David Johnson in a nuisance suit filed by the city.
Bobby Castro
Attorney Michael Spalding represented landlord David Johnson in a nuisance suit filed by the city.

On its Web site, the City Attorney's Office explains that it is on a mission to help citizens clean up San Francisco. Via the Internet, the office solicits complaints from frustrated tenants and neighbors who live in poor conditions, or feel besieged by crime in their neighborhoods.

"It's the house that nobody cares about," the Web site reads. "It appears to be falling apart before your eyes. ... The little paint left probably is the only thing holding the walls up, and the stairs look like they're about to crumble. Or maybe it's worse. Have drug dealers taken over the place?"

The site offers solutions through the Code Enforcement Task Force, which was created specifically to deal with these kinds of problem, the site explains: "No one should have to put up with blight and safety hazards. The task force will help you, your neighbors and your family to reclaim your block."

The task force is part of Louise Renne's much-heralded aggressive approach to city litigation. California Lawyer magazine and other publications have praised Renne for invoking the public nuisance statute to close down crack houses, and generating revenue for the city.

The strategy has worked even better since staffing was beefed up -- the code enforcement section of the City Attorney's Office has grown from four attorneys to 11 in the past two years.

By threatening fines and lawsuits, the task force has rid the city of troublesome businesses and buildings. It raked in $875,000 in 1998 for code violation penalties, and another $575,000 just in the first quarter of 1999.

The task force usually deals with about 550 cases at a time. The cases become lawsuits when the City Attorney's Office feels property owners aren't dealing with problems quickly enough.

Increasingly, the task force has turned its efforts to deterring crime in areas like the Mission or Ingleside, arguing that storeowners need to take more initiative in policing their property. In the city's eyes, storeowners cannot rely solely on the police to stop suspect activity. "The police cannot be everywhere at once," Deputy City Attorney Carrera says. "Storeowners have to take responsibility for what happens in their premises."

City officials first try to cajole errant property owners into shaping up, and say they file public nuisance suits only as a last resort.

There have been some notable successes. The City Attorney's Office teamed up with police to clean up Doc's Clock bar, an infamous Mission drug den where crack cocaine could be bought as easily as a bottle of beer. Using hundreds of police incident reports of drug trafficking in the bar, the city was able to build its public nuisance case. Deputy City Attorney Marc Slavin says that, since the lawsuit, Doc's Clock has undergone a veritable transformation, and is now considered a popular -- and lawful -- nightlife destination.

When it files suit, the city invokes a slew of state and city codes, including ones that require businesses to monitor the public sidewalk 20 feet in front of their stores for trash, loitering, and criminal activity. Going by its legal research, the city attorney believes that high crime in a neighborhood doesn't legally excuse a storeowner from monitoring the area in front of his business. The office also uses a 1993 legal precedent to argue that storeowners are responsible, "whether knowingly or unknowingly," for crimes that take place on their property. The same precedent allows the city to assert that owners and landlords are liable for criminal activity committed by people who are not patronizing the business, but who happen to commit their crimes in the business or nearby.

The results of Health or Fire Department inspections, reports of underage police decoys successfully buying liquor, or undercover cops selling stolen goods in a suspect business can also be used to build a case. Repeated neighborhood complaints can initiate a lawsuit as well.

Still, the definition of "public nuisance" is ambiguous. According to state civil codes, public nuisance is "one which affects at the same time an entire community or neighborhood, or any considerable number of persons, although the extent of the annoyance or damage inflicted upon individuals may be unequal." Attorneys liken public nuisance to pornography because many people use the argument that they "will know public nuisance when the see it."

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
San Francisco Concert Tickets
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.