It was 2005. An Orange County Superior Court judge had ordered Phillip Leland Richardson — convicted of using an illegal tarp to cover his belongings and allowing trash to gather on his lawn — to bring his home up to code within 30 days of his sentencing.
On Day 30, a code enforcement officer visited the home at 276 E. 19th St. in Costa Mesa. He reported seeing a car part, large water bottle, lawn mower, vacuum, corrugated panel, tools, a tire, discarded pots, construction cones, boat and Boogie board outside. The officer also reported tarps covering driveway items, on a motor home, and on items in the side yard.
After repeated visits that year, city officials were dissatisfied. They alleged that November that Richardson violated his probation. The city’s contracted prosecutor, Dan Peelman, led the effort.
Richardson unsuccessfully asked the judge to dismiss the allegation while contesting a new one: his “badly decayed” roof shingles.
Richardson asserted City Hall made a “beautification” matter about health and safety concerns in order to overstep his property rights because Costa Mesa harbored “insecurity issues.” Its roofs were “not as pretty as the roofs in Newport Beach.”
Richardson told the court he wanted to add a second story, rendering moot the shingles complaint. In the back of his mind, he harbored aspirations of transforming his Costa Mesa home into something like the Beaufort Inn, a historic Victorian mansion in South Carolina.
His plea failed. The court determined he had violated probation and sentenced him to 90 days in jail and fines.
Richardson appealed, calling his punishment cruel and unusual. The court stayed his sentence until his appeal was settled.
Eventually, Richardson was let go on an unrelated technicality. In 2006, Peelman began prosecuting Benito Acosta, an Orange Coast College student and Latino activist arrested on suspicion of disrupting a Costa Mesa council meeting. But in that proceeding, a judge learned Peelman was never sworn in as a prosecutor. She considered the oversight “a constitutional issue” and threw the Acosta case out.
Appellate judges reviewing Richardson’s case shared the same sentiment, so they threw out Peelman’s case against Richardson.
Peelman, however, wasn’t done. Weeks after the appellate ruling, in an email he laid out a plan to re-prosecute Richardson, essentially on similar allegations that had been overturned.
“All is not lost,” Peelman asserted.
They’ve got their man — or do they?
About three weeks later, a fresh code enforcement log on 276 E. 19th cited a “deteriorated roof,” as well as a dishwasher, stove, “discarded” bikes, pieces of cardboard and other items out front.
The case got off to a rocky start. In April 2009, the city ordered a Philip L. Richardson of Canoga Park, some 70 miles away, to bring the Costa Mesa home into compliance.
They had the wrong man. For months, the frustrated Canoga Park Richardson tried to convince City Hall of the mixup, noting he was a legally different person who spelled his first name with one L, not two.
The city didn’t believe him. One official wrote back he had to prove he didn’t own the house.
Eventually a code enforcement officer realized the mistake and, over the phone, apologized.
That August, Peelman filed a second criminal complaint against the correct Richardson. It alleged he illegally stored items in front of his house, which had a deteriorated roof and unkempt landscaping.
Richardson again defended himself in court. He sought a dismissal for what he deemed double jeopardy but was unsuccessful. A jury ended up convicting him on all charges.
This time, Peelman wanted Richardson in jail. He argued that he “has shown no remorse for his conduct or the conditions of his property.”
Richardson instead got probation, fines and an order to replace his roof and keep up with his yard.
He appealed but lost. Richardson’s crimes, the judges ruled, were continuing public nuisances.
Payments and a day in jail
In 2011 and 2012, the city continued to inspect Richardson’s house and take him to court for allegedly violating his probation.
In one complaint, sent in 2012, someone reported hoarding. Rats and insects had allegedly traveled from Richardson’s house to the complainant’s property.
“It is bad for the neighborhood and is a complete eyesore,” the letter concluded.
Meanwhile, Richardson was paying his fine with $100 monthly installments, but sometimes he missed, and the court issued an arrest warrant. Then he’d show up and pay.
Richardson didn’t pay in August 2012, records show. Out went a warrant.
Richardson arrived in a Newport Beach courtroom the morning of Sept. 13, check in hand. That didn’t appease Superior Court Judge Stephanie George. She ordered him arrested.
Richardson spent the day in the courthouse jail. Before the facility closed, he was escorted back into George’s courtroom, where he admitted violating probation. George applied his jail time and suspended his remaining fine balance.
The case was closed May 12, 2013.
Richardson thought it was over. It wasn’t.
In Chapter 5, the city begins its fourth effort on the Richardson home since 2001 and moves in on his property.