Most people would consider an apartment complex or store owner who must cope with crime on their premises as a secondary victim. However, the City of Houston regularly threatens to shut down apartment complexes and businesses where it determines too many crimes have occurred. In 2004, Houston shut down a Vietnamese food store on the basis of criminal activity that included traffic stops near the store.
Last year, Houston’s “Forfeiture Abatement Support Team” sent letters to targeted apartment owners on police department letterhead threatening suit if they did not agree to a “nuisance abatement plan,” which involves hiring off-duty police officers. While most owners relented, Gary Gates demanded information on who committed the 55 alleged crimes in and around his complex so he could evict them. (Many were committed by non-residents or were undercover drug stings.)
The City refused, claiming an open records exception, and later sued Gates, seeking to place his complex in receivership, shut it down for a year, and jail him if he did not comply. The City ultimately dropped its suit, but Gates’ countersuit currently awaits a ruling in state district court.
Legislators should examine whether reforms in the state nuisance law are needed, including requiring jurisdictions to notify business owners of criminals’ identities prior to any nuisance proceedings. The nuisance law shouldn’t be used as a weapon against legitimate business owners struggling to survive in high-crime areas.
– Marc Levin