Businesses Unfairly Targeted

Harriet K. Bilford is an attorney in Van Nuys

In a misguided effort to control crime, the city of Los Angeles has been using a nuisance-revocation process to effectively force small, mostly minority-owned, businesses to take on the job of the Los Angeles Police Department.

These businesses, most in high-crime areas, are being forced by police and city officials to shoulder the burden for crimes they did not cause and for which they are not legally or morally responsible.

The grueling process begins when a notice of public hearing is mailed to a business owner, usually at the request of a member of the City Council or LAPD. At this point, area residents (through community-based policing and Neighborhood Watch meetings) and the Office of Zoning Administration often have already been convinced that the business is responsible for neighborhood crime. The hearing notice often includes language that the business has generated "repeated nuisance activities including illegal drug activity, drinking in public, prostitution, loitering, lewd conduct, urination and defecation, which contribute to the social and physical deterioration of the adjacent community." This highly inflammatory hearing notice is mailed to property owners within a 500-foot radius, informing them of the hearing where they may speak out against the business.

The chief zoning administrator is designated the "applicant" initiating the action, and he decides which member of his staff--the associate zoning administrators--will be the hearing officer who renders the decision. This first step toward revocation generally results in imposition of at least a dozen standard conditions, such as requiring the owner to employ costly state-licensed security guards (to patrol not only the businesses but also public streets), install unsightly gates or chains, reduce business hours, pay unauthorized fees of up to $4,050 to reimburse the city for initiating the action, and ensure that the manager on duty is fluent in English. A violation of any condition is considered a misdemeanor for which the owner may be fined and imprisoned for up to six months. The conditions also always "run with the land," meaning a new buyer would be bound by them, making it extremely difficult to sell the property.

If the business has not already closed as a result of the city's action, a second step goes into effect: The same associate zoning administrator determines the effectiveness of conditions imposed and whether the owner is in compliance. If not, the business' certificate of occupancy can be revoked.

Councilman Hal Bernson, chairman of the Planning and Land Use Management Committee, has conceded that many times these businesses are victims that have done nothing wrong except locate in high-crime neighborhoods. At a Nov. 5 committee meeting involving two North Hollywood motels, Bernson said, "We've listened to these cases ad nauseam."

And no wonder! Businesses targeted in the San Fernando Valley alone since 1992 include: a Sun Valley swap meet; two Granada Hills commercial horse boarding facilities; Daniel Michelle Farms in Chatsworth; Nice & Easy Auto Repair, Van Nuys; La Rinda Plaza, Mission Hills; Insomnia Cafe, Sherman Oaks; Oil Can Harry's Pool Room, Sherman Oaks; Food Bag Market, North Hollywood; Van Nuys Swap Meet, Mission Hills; 7-Elevens in Van Nuys and Arleta; Orville's Original Doughnuts, Van Nuys; a private tennis court in Chatsworth; Stonehouse Farms Equestrian Center, Sunland; Acapulco Restaurant, Northridge; Valley Beth Shalom Temple, Encino; a day-care center in North Hollywood; a Thai temple in Panorama City; several Van Nuys and North Hollywood motels . . . the list goes on.

Just since September, Arax Recycling in North Hollywood, Bubble Bath Car Wash in Lakeview Terrace and Cable Crafters Construction in Glendale have been declared nuisances; the Valley Iranian Jewish Center (Eretz Cultural Center) in Reseda awaits a decision.

Several of these listed businesses (and others as well) have been forced to close, either on city orders or because of conditions imposed. In addition, there are probably at least 100 others elsewhere in Los Angeles that have been targeted as public nuisances. Yet how do these mom-and-pop businesses "attract" criminal activity any more than the city's own parks, buses, streets and other public properties, where crime continues unabated because of the city's inability to control the problem?

Despite the serious consequences, because these administrative proceedings do not take place in a court of law, the business owner is deprived of the most basic constitutionally guaranteed due process safeguards: the right to an impartial hearing officer, the right to cross-examine and confront accusers, the right to have witnesses sworn in.

On Oct. 11, Superior Court Judge Kenneth Gale overturned the zoning administrator and City Council's decision in two nuisance cases involving the Ash and Furst motels in South-Central Los Angeles. Gale found that several conditions violated the law and that the zoning administrator, members of the Board of Zoning Appeals and the City Council all "prejudged" the cases and violated the owner's constitutional rights.

In the last 2 1/2 years, I (and others) have provided the L.A. Police Commission, LAPD Internal Affairs, all 15 council members and Mayor Richard Riordan with documentation (including records subpoenaed from the LAPD and sworn testimony from city employees) indicating that much of the evidence provided by police in connection with these hearings is false or misleading.

The primary evidence used against businesses is the LAPD's Police Arrest and Crime Management Information System (PACMIS) report for the business address. This report cites incidents of alleged nuisance or criminal activity attributed to the business. But a review of the actual investigation and arrest reports reveals that most of the incidents occur on nearby public property and are not related to operation of the business. Often the incidents are traffic violations or telephone calls--sometimes made by business owners to report crimes. But this is not disclosed in the PACMIS report or in hearings, and each incident reported in PACMIS, regardless of circumstance, is used as evidence to establish nuisance.

In November, the newly appointed police inspector general's office indicated it will investigate complaints of false and misleading evidence presented by police at hearings, and failure by the commission and internal affairs to respond to complaints. Coincidentally, the commission has just completed an investigative report of the PACMIS report, and a public hearing is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Tuesday in Room 146 at Parker Center, 150 N. Los Angeles St.

Regardless of the outcome of these investigations, city officials must stop ratifying, condoning and even commending a discriminatory and abusive process. They must stop doing what is politically correct and begin protecting mom-and-pop businesses wrongfully held responsible for crimes outside their control.

Legitimate businesses, labeled a public nuisance, rubber-stamped with burdensome conditions and threatened with criminal sanctions and loss of the right to operate, are being made the scapegoats for Los Angeles' own failure to control crime. The net result of these nuisance revocation hearings is to force small businesses, many barely able to survive before the city targeted them, to permanently close their doors.

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