Monday, January 16, 2006

Dealing with Unruly Neighbors

Question: For the last few years, a neighbor's teenage son has stolen, vandalized and beat up other kids in the neighborhood. When his father is at work, their home is the hangout for all of the drug addicts. The police have taken the boy to juvenile hall on several occasions and the boy only laughs at the situation. The local police had told us about another alternative, a civil lawsuit for ''Peaceful Enjoyment of Your Property''. There are several neighbors that have been impacted by this and we want to know what we can do. Our thought is that if we punish the father with punitive measures, maybe he might wake up and take an active roll with his son, versus keeping a deaf ear to us and the police.

Answer: You should continue to report any illegal conduct to the police or other appropriate authorities. If the police are not being aggressive enough, you can always contact your local city into your own hands, you have two basic options for filing a civil action.

The police are referring to a lawsuit for "abatement of a nuisance". A nuisance is anything "which is injurious to health, including, but notlimited to, the illegal sale of controlled substances, or is indecent or offensive to the senses, or an obstruction to the free use ofproperty, so as to interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of life"

The situation you describe is a "nuisance" under California Civil Code § 3479. Under Civil Code § 3501, any private party impacted by the nuisance can sue for money damages and for a court order prohibiting the offensive conduct. Intentional violations of court orders are punishable by up to 5 days in jail and/or a $1000 fine. In a civil lawsuit, private parties can act as a prosecutor and file contempt of court charges without the assistance of the government. Attorney's fees are recoverable from the defendant for a successful prosecution of a civil contempt matter.

If you or your neighbors do not have the resources to hire an attorney for a civil action, many local law enforcement agencies have a program called Safe Streets Now. Neighbors discreetly monitor a property, keeping logs of possible illegal activity. When enough evidence has been gathered, neighbors send a demand letter to the property owners asking them to clean up the property and evict the problem tenants.

If the property owners fail to comply or fail to resolve the problems, the people go to small claims court and argue that the owners are maintaining a public nuisance by allowing illegal activity to occur on their property.

Under the rules of small claims court, each neighbor on the claim is eligible for up to $7,500 in damages. The judge has no power to close down a home, but the threat of huge financial penalties often compels the owners to step in and take care of the problems. Police and community groups have used the Safe Streets Now program all over the country to combat illegal drug activity and other community.

Please contact us if you need further assistance.

About the Author
Carl H. Starrett II has been a licensed attorney since 1993 and is a member in good standing with the California State Bar and the San Diego County Bar Association. Mr. Starrett practices in the areas of bankruptcy, business litigation, construction, corporate planning and debt collection.

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