By Kate Conger
By Brian Rinker
By Rachel Swan
By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
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.
"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.
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."
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."
The City Attorney's Office arguably interprets public nuisance broadly. "We don't rate nuisance," says Carrera. "It either is or it's not. They're all equally egregious. Someone might say that [a bar] selling crack is more egregious than selling alcohol to minors, but that doesn't mean we won't prosecute both. The community deserves both kinds of nuisances to be eradicated."
But in its fervor to clean up shady businesses, some business owners and their attorneys say, the city fails to consider the shades of gray that exist in the real world.
The Magic Donuts case is a good example.
With a timid affability, Roger Chao serves a bearded, big-bellied customer at his doughnut shop. Chao scoops up a glazed doughnut from the neat row of pastries glistening from behind the glass case and quietly asks for 65 cents.
Roger has been in the doughnut business since coming to the United States from Cambodia in 1980. For the first few years, Roger earned minimum-wage paychecks as the baker at two different Winchell's Donuts in Southern California -- he worked a day shift at one, and then went straight to the night shift at the other. When he moved to the South Bay, it seemed only natural that he would open up his own doughnut shop.
The Chaos, who both camped in the Cambodian jungle for over six months to escape the terror of Pol Pot's regime, poured their scant life savings into operating a San Jose doughnut shop, but it was not a financial success. When Lin Chao's brother bought a shop in San Francisco, the Chaos decided to relocate. "We came to San Francisco because the income [in San Jose] was not enough to support the family," Roger says. "The family was growing. We wanted to find a better place to live."
About a year after the Chaos took over the Mission District doughnut shop, undercover police officer Kevin Whitfield walked into Magic Donuts at a minute past midnight on Sept. 11, 1998. The officer quickly made eye contact with one of the two men working behind the counter. Pulling a gold necklace, bracelet, and gold bar from his pocket, Whitfield flashed the merchandise at the two minimum-wage doughnut shop employees.
The younger of the two employees approached the counter. Grabbing the gold bar, he asked how much Whitfield wanted for it. "Let me have $40," Whitfield said. The other doughnut shop employee began eyeing the necklace and bracelet. Whitfield told the men that he had broken into a house and stolen the jewelry. After examining the gold through a magnifying glass, one worker asked some patrons in the store for some cash, and collected enough to pay Whitfield.
Undercover police would come back to Magic Donuts three more times to sell stolen jewelry, cameras, and video equipment to late-shift employees. After the fourth sting, police Inspector Gary Fox went to Magic Donuts in October 1998 with a search warrant, looking for the stolen merchandise sold to doughnut store employees. After searching the front of the shop and breaking down the back office and storeroom doors, Fox found none of the stolen goods. Some items were later found at the homes of three employees.
The sting operation would become the trophy evidence in the city's public nuisance lawsuit filed against Magic Donuts in May 1999. A year before, the Chaos had received a letter from the City Attorney's Office warning them that Magic Donuts was a public nuisance because of alleged drug and criminal activity at the store. "There has been an average of nine calls per month to the police regarding your property. There have also been numerous drug-related arrests and arrests for aggravated assaults. We have also received reports from residents of the neighborhood that stolen property is being stored and sold on the premises," the letter said.
The letter said that unless the doughnut shop abated the nuisance -- including hiring a security guard and ejecting drug dealers from the premises -- the City Attorney's Office would sue. Lin and Roger Chao say they tried to follow the directions in the letter, but the City Attorney's Office expressed dissatisfaction when the Chaos said they could not afford to hire a 24-hour security guard.
But it was the employees buying stolen goods from an undercover cop that really got the Chaos in trouble, and to an extent they were being held accountable for problems that existed long before they bought the business.
"Those employees were another chapter in a long history of fencing in that place," says Deputy City Attorney Scott Rennie. "It had a reputation for many years as a place for stolen goods."
But Walter Cooke, the Chaos' attorney, asserts in court documents that "isolated incidents of criminal activity by a tenant's late-shift employees in the middle of the night hardly constitute a public nuisance. ... And there is simply no duty here on the part of either the commercial tenant, or the commercial landlord, to police public sidewalks."
The Chaos say they immediately fired the three employees caught in the sting. They believe there was no reason to take them to court. "If someone does something wrong and I let them do it, then they should punish me," Roger says, his voice rising. "But if people do bad things behind my back, it is not my fault. It would have been better if [the city] would just teach me what to do instead of doing a sting operation."
The city also used the number of calls for police service and police incident reports to show that the Chaos allowed criminal activity to occur at Magic Donuts. The city produced four incident reports of assault or narcotics possession by independent third parties in the store in the past three years. But one, a March 1997 police report, listed Magic Donuts as the "victim," when 20 gang members stormed the store to attack three customers. The front window of the doughnut shop was broken when someone threw a milk crate through it.
Curtis Dowling, the attorney for the Chaos' landlord, notes that many of the calls to police used in the lawsuit were made by employees of the doughnut shop trying to get help removing troublemakers from the area.
But faced with mounting legal bills, the Chaos ultimately paid the city and settled the case. "We're stuck now," Lin says sadly. "We can't sell because no one will want to buy it because we have a three-year probation. And we still have to pay the court fees."
Since the lawsuit, the Chaos have demanded to meet with Mission police Capt. Suhr because they don't want to accidentally violate their court injunction and end up paying more money to the city.
"As soon as the owner is under an injunction, they take control," Deputy City Attorney Carrera notes. "It's a wake-up call."
But Suhr, who is on a first-name basis with the Chaos, says that in cases like Magic Donuts, public nuisance lawsuits sometimes enter into an uncomfortable gray area. "We know that there is a story within a story here," Suhr admits. "But let me ask you one question: Why shouldn't [Roger and Lin's] store be worth as much as a doughnut shop in West Portal or Noe Valley? If code enforcement makes the Mission District a thriving commerce corridor so that people are itching to get in here, people like Roger will benefit. Because whatever they spent on code enforcement would be pennies compared to what they could make.
"I wish that there was a more palatable way to do this thing, but I'm at a loss," Suhr continues. "In the long run, it will bear itself out, and the fruits of their labor will surpass this momentary discomfort. But I do feel bad for Magic Donuts."
Since January 1997, when the Code Enforcement Task Force was reinvigorated by Louise Renne, about 100 businesses and commercial property owners have been slapped with joint public nuisance and unfair business practice suits for everything from allowing drug dealing to tolerating loiterers.
Attorneys for some of those sued say the city often files sloppy, form-letter actions that fail to recognize the complexities of running a small business. Attorney Curtis Dowling calls many of the city's suits "smoke and mirrors."
"They're thin cases," Dowling says. "In the Mission and the Tenderloin, these tenants are faulted for the general blight of the neighborhood. The idea is that if they get rid of the [businesses] then the scumbags on the streets will go with them."
A popular argument among storeowners is that the crime existed before their businesses did, and that policing neighborhoods for criminal activity is the job of the police. "Forty-five years this has been going on," Roger Chao says of the fencing at the corner in front of Magic Donuts. "If they know it, then why is there no action? But now, there is a new law to clean up the street. I don't know what the law is, but I feel that it is unfair to me."
Though the city does warn businesses before filing suit, attorneys for the storeowners point out that it is often impossible for a storeowner to abate the nuisance to the city's satisfaction. Suits are often based on police incident reports or calls to the police for crimes to which the business has no direct link, Dowling says.
When it sues a store or business owner, the city also typically goes after the commercial landlord who rents out the storefront. Dowling, who has represented three landlords in nuisance cases brought by the city of San Francisco, theorizes that suing the landlord is a strong-arm tactic to get the landlord to evict the tenant.
"They bring the landlord into this so that he will have to succumb to the economic pressures of the city and evict the tenant," Dowling says. "In the end, the city is trying to put the tenant out of business, however it can be done. And if they have to put economic pressure over the landlord to accomplish it, then their attitude is, so be it. But it's not fair, and it's not right."
Small-business owners say they can be financially devastated by the lawsuits, which they often settle because they can't afford to go to trial.
But the City Attorney's Office says it is very thoughtful about its claims of nuisance. "No suit we undertake is done lightly," says Deputy City Attorney Slavin. "We don't sue a business owner unless they are repeatedly warned and they have done nothing to comply. We make sure we have evidence when we go to court. We think we are doing a great service to the city by cleaning up these blighted businesses."
The file for the city's nuisance suit against David Johnson's apartment building in the Mission is several inches thick. But it is not stuffed with evidence of Johnson's supposed transgressions. Rather, most of the file consists of motions from Johnson's attorney asking over and over again for the city attorney to cough up the evidence that justifies the lawsuit.
"Where are the evidence and documents?" demands Johnson's attorney, Michael Spalding, as he rises from his desk in his Financial District office. "To this day, I still don't know who complained that the place was a nuisance. [The City Attorney's Office] has stonewalled and misconstrued words that any moron would know what I'm talking about. This is not hugely unusual because attorneys generally don't want to play the game by the rules, but this is far more offensive when it's a public entity doing it."
Johnson's apartment building at 2061 Mission St. is located between 16th and 17th streets, in a busy retail area where shoppers, residents, hooligans, drug dealers, fences, and homeless people regularly congregate. The building entrance is guarded by a wrought-iron gate, and flanked by a smoke shop and a shoe store.
In the city's complaint, Johnson's building is described as a public nuisance because it has been used for drug activities and as a dumping ground for discarded hypodermic needles. Loitering, disturbing the peace, and "other illegal and annoying activities" also allegedly take place.
But Spalding says the city never would give him the records he asked for to support those allegations. According to documents that the city did give to Spalding, the suit was based on a Code Enforcement Task Force inspection conducted on April 30, 1998, when various fire, health, and building code violations were found. The violations included a roach problem, broken door latches, and a broken window. Mission police Capt. Greg Suhr characterizes the building as being slumlike, though Spalding has a stack of letters from city agencies noting that all problems were promptly abated.
Deputy City Attorney Carrera was with the task force when it inspected Johnson's building. At that time, she asked Johnson to hire an around-the-clock security guard, saying there were several reports of transients sneaking into the building and hanging out in the common room, doing drugs.
Twelve police incident reports for mostly drug-related crimes from March 1997 to January 1999 were submitted by the city when it filed the nuisance suit against Johnson. The reports showed that nonresidents were cited -- only six were actually arrested -- in the building for possession of drugs or drug paraphernalia. Only one of these arrests, which occurred a few blocks from the apartment building, involved a tenant of the building.
The city was also concerned about the high number of calls for police service to the area, but Spalding points out that according to police-produced reports, a large number of calls came from tenants or the building manager to report the transients who had wandered into the building.
Spalding says that because Johnson could not afford to pay for 24-hour security, he continued to work with the Mission Police Station, and offered a storefront free of charge to the police to use as a substation. Capt. Suhr at one point signed a letter stating that he did not believe the property needed a security guard at the time.
But when Johnson failed to hire a 24-hour security guard, the city initiated its nuisance suit. "There was not enough effort," Carrera says. "If [Johnson] said he was trying to work with the police, then why were the tenants so dissatisfied and so afraid? A lot [of the building code violations] have been abated but we had to file a complaint for the drug activity because the owner refused to comply voluntarily with hiring a security guard. There were families living there. It was really unsafe."
Spalding says that Johnson had, since November 1998, hired part-time guards, and thought that a 24-hour guard would not be necessary since he had the letter from Suhr saying so. But Suhr says Johnson misunderstood the purpose of the letter. "I met with Johnson and he seemed willing to have police help," Suhr says. "Johnson seemed to be under the impression that if he told the Police Department his problems, that the police would adopt his building. We have 125 officers at Mission Station. You can imagine how far that would go."
The Mission Police Station is currently out of compliance with the city charter, and understaffed by 10 officers, Suhr says.
"Maybe if the police had as many officers as it should, the city wouldn't be insisting that private property owners hire private security," Spalding says. "With all the police reports in the past three years, they only got one guy on a warrant. It never triggers prosecution of the criminal, but on the other hand, they want to get hundreds of thousands of dollars out of Dave Johnson.
"We have no philosophical problem with the suit if [the landlord] is not keeping the place up," Spalding continues. "And the Code Enforcement Task Force may have done good things, but they're divorced from economic reality."
The city asked for over $200,000 to settle the case against Johnson in September 1999. In the end, Johnson agreed to pay $15,000 for, among other things, more training for his property manager.
Norman's Liquors sits at the bend of 19th and Randolph streets, ensconced in a working-class neighborhood that sees its fair share of drug deals and homicides. Adequately kept houses surround the storefront, and scraps of paper and plastic bags blow up against the buildings from the street.
Nineteenth and Randolph is one of the worst corners in that neighborhood, Sgt. Michael Williams of the Taraval Police Station says. It's been a choice location for drug deals for a decade because it is a major thoroughfare. Dealers and buyers can do their business on the corner, then hop into their cars and speed off toward the freeway or the city center.
It was the excessive drug dealing that led to the still-pending public nuisance lawsuit against the owner of Norman's Liquors, Sam Kaleh, a slightly balding middle-aged man who took over the store from his cousin a year and a half ago.
According to the city's suit, Norman's Liquors allowed drug dealers to congregate "in or around" the store on four separate occasions in the first half of 1999. The suit also alleges that Kaleh and his landlord have allowed the property to "facilitate drug transactions" three times in 1999. The city also claims that Norman's is a public nuisance because Kaleh has allowed the property to be a "locus for criminal activity."
"The liquor store provides a shelter," explains Deputy City Attorney Phoebe Labarle. "When the police drive up, people run inside and stash things. There's one or two arrests where people spit out their drugs while they're inside the store. At this point, there are no reports that the store owner is selling drugs."
Kaleh's attorney says that by punishing Kaleh, the city is targeting the wrong person. "The storeowner is never charged with the crime," notes Kaleh's attorney, Haitham Ballout. "We never deny that these things happen -- this is one of the worst neighborhoods. But the storeowner is not responsible for the national drug problem. What actually has he done wrong?"
Kaleh acknowledges that the same 15 kids hang around the area every day, sometimes on the corner in front of his business. Though he says he does not fear for his personal safety, Kaleh is extremely nervous about disrupting the tenuous relationship he has cultivated with the potentially questionable characters who loiter in the area.
"I ask nicely for them to move, and they move," Kaleh says. "Every day I go out there a hundred times to tell them. I told them that the city filed a lawsuit against me, so now they are not here as much."
But Williams says Kaleh has not done enough. "We can't expect liquor stores to be policemen, but we do expect them to cooperate and call the police, give us a description of what is going on, and not get in the way," he says.
Williams says that after police asked, Kaleh did not stop selling Brillo pads (which are often used in makeshift crack pipes) or a brand of Arab cigarettes popular with young drug dealers. Kaleh has also refused to close at midnight, or move freezers blocking windows so that police can see what is going on in the store.
Labarle, however, says that Kaleh has been open to the City Attorney's Office's suggestions to abate the nuisance and has improved the lighting, installed security cameras, and posted No Loitering signs. But even if Kaleh continues to cooperate, Labarle says the suit will not be dropped if the criminal activity persists. "There have been arrests out there recently," Labarle says. "The police continue to report that it's an area of concern."
Kaleh sums up the lawsuit with one word: "Bullshit."
"I came to this country from Palestine in 1981," he says, his eyes flashing. "I have no ABC violations and Tobacco and Firearms sent me a congratulations letter for not selling to a decoy. In my almost 20 years here, the only thing I've had is a speeding ticket. And I am not intending to do anything against the law.
"They try to blame all the problems in the neighborhood on my store," he says. "It is not my problem. The problem has been there. It was here when I came and it will be here when I leave."