House Criminal Jurisprudence Chairman Terry KeelDALLAS – The City of Dallas came under fire this week as several business owners alleged in a legislative hearing that they were the victims of selective enforcement of the public nuisance abatement law, official oppression, witness tampering, and civil rights violations.
The public hearing was a continuation of a series of meetings the Legislature held over the past six months to hear complaints that owners of businesses that call the police to stop illegal activities on their property, are having those same calls turned against them as proof that their properties are a nuisance.
Another common complaint is that some Dallas police officers have intimidated business owners, in some cases telling them to hire additional security – and recommending off-duty police officers for the job.
This session, lawmakers clarified the public nuisance statute to get the City of Dallas to stop misusing the law. The new law allows a city to take action if a property owner “knowingly tolerates” a crime that occurs on his property and “fails to make reasonable attempts to abate” the crime.
However, the allegations made against the City of Dallas were so serious that Criminal Jurisprudence Committee chairman Terry Keel (R-Austin) and General Investigating & Ethics Committee vice chairman Ken Paxton (R-McKinney) have vowed to hold more meetings in order to review all the allegations and evidence. The committees will then produce their findings in a joint report that they will present to the Legislature and the public.
“The sworn testimony merits further review,” Keel said. “I believe that there’s more than enough sworn evidence to indicate several considerations of possible criminal law violations, possibly civil rights violations, possibly official oppression, possibly witness tampering among others…”
Continued misuse of nuisance law?
According to Richard Clouse of Budget Suites of America, the City of Dallas is continuing to misuse the nuisance abatement law against his hotel on Stemmons Freeway. In the past, Budget Suites let the police use hotel rooms to conduct sting operations on drug dealers and prostitutes. However, Dallas used the arrests resulting in the sting against Budget Suites and cited the hotel for allowing a nuisance on its property.
The City of Dallas is suing Budget Suites for violations of the public nuisance law. Clouse testified that despite the lawsuit the police were conducting undercover sting operations in Budget Suites hotel rooms without the company’s knowledge.
“The city conducted undercover operations that were developed to create crime on our property,” Clouse said.
After a September 2005 meeting with Dallas city attorneys, Clouse said the city indicated Budget Suites would still be held responsible for the crimes that occurred during the undercover drug stings.
Budget Suites had also noticed increased incidence of criminal activity. They evicted what they thought were drug dealers bringing crime onto their property. But as it turned out, the evicted individuals were undercover police officers.
“In light of the consequences we face under the common nuisance litigation (with the city), this is bad faith at least and likely a deprivation of our due process of rights and possibly fraud… We have never been involved in litigation where the opposing party is free to continually and without inhibition take steps to undermine our business.”
Investigating allegations of civil rights violations
The joint committee issued subpoenas in their investigation of possible civil rights violations and official oppression due to the City’s application of the public nuisance abatement law.
The committee called on Ricardo Campbell, a Dallas police officer who was the subject of an internal complaint for writing a letter in support of Budget Suites.
“I believe it was unfounded,” Campbell said. “I can tell you as a 26-year veteran, I was pretty upset. I thought I was out doing my job but I was getting punished for it.”
Campbell wrote that the management was very proactive in preventing nuisance abatement.
When Keel asked Campbell who lodged the complaint against him, Campbell said he didn’t know. Keel pressed Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle for an answer. Kunkle said the City Attorney’s Office brought it the Department’s attention.
Keel said the conduct of the City Attorney’s Office was “official oppression.”
“City legal files a complaint on an honest officer whose only crime is that he spoke in favor of a business that city legal is harassing,” Keel said. “That’s incredible news… Chief, I’m sorry you’re not offended by it. You should be. I have serious concerns about City Legal doing that to a police officer.”
“I don’t believe that occurred,” Kunkle replied.
Dallas City Atty. Tom Perkins explained that his office notified the police department about the case because there was a question as to whether Campbell was living in a Budget Suites hotel room. The complaint was eventually dropped.
Budget Suites attorney Steven Stephani told the committee three officers lived at the hotel. However, only Campbell was the target of an internal investigation.
“Any objective person connected with this would see the common sense conclusion here is that this is an act of intimidation,” Keel remarked.
Dale Davenport , owner of Jim’s Carwash, has also been the target of the City’s aggressive application of the public nuisance law. Keel cited as an act of police “intimidation” an incident at Jim’s Carwash that brought 11 patrol cars to the scene.
Kunkle admitted such a response was inappropriate and “clearly designed to intimidate.” He said the act was in response to Davenport ’s testifying on behalf of an individual who was charged with resisting an arrest. “It should be embarrassing to every Dallas police officer,” Kunkle said.
Keel called the incident a possible civil rights violation or an instance of official oppression. Kunkle agreed, adding that all information relating to the incident has been handed over to the FBI.
Pay for security?
Several businessmen testifying at the hearing told legislators that some police officers said if they hired them as off-duty security guards, their public nuisance problems with the City would go away.
The City of Dallas has had a long-standing practice of allowing police officers to work after hours as off-duty security guards.
Stephani and Clouse testified they were told by a Dallas policeman in August 2005 that if Budget Suites hired a police lieutenant or sergeant as an off-duty security guard the hotel’s nuisance problems would go away. Kunkle said that the officer’s comments were misinterpreted.
Does “the City of Dallas rent out police cars or off-duty officers?” asked Rep. Terri Hodge (D-Dallas).
Kunkle explained that the city created the program in the early 1990s to allow neighborhood associations to rent police cars and hire off-duty officers. He said if he had been chief at the time, he would not have recommended it.
“Here’s what bothers me,” Keel said. “You’ve got those officers in the neighborhood that are paid by tax dollars to protect the citizens telling the citizens, ‘You need to pay us a user fee.’ I’ve never heard of that ever in my life.”
Hiring off-duty police officers or private security guards comes at a hefty price. Off-duty police officers can earn at least $30 an hour, and police vehicles can be rented for at least $1,500 a month.
“Our nightmare continues,” said Davenport , “because we are still under a permanent injunction… and we’re still having to provide our own security at great expense” to keep drug dealers and crime off of the property. The private guard service at the carwash accounts for 60 percent of the business’s expenses.
Dallas ’ new approach to nuisance
Dallas city officials announced last week they would take a new approach when dealing with public nuisance issues. “It became clear to me,” said Kunkle, “based on what happened in the Austin meetings and other meetings with apartment managers and other people in the community is that we needed to change how we engaged in nuisance abatement with the SAFE team… Our intent is to work in cooperation, try[ing] not to get into conflict or litigation with property owners.”
Kunkle said the nuisance abatement SAFE team, reduced from 16 members to eight, now reports under the police department’s operation command.
However, Hodge was skeptical of the City’s new system. “It’s been very difficult for this committee to work with the city. The city has no respect for the law, even the revision….”