Culpability of site owners argued in crack-house cases

By Joshua Benton
Blade Columbus Bureau

Page 22

COLUMBUS –The Ohio Supreme Court heard arguments yesterday in a Toledo case that could expand a prosecutor’s power to shut down crack houses.

But attorneys for the buildings’ owners said the state is trying to violate their clients’ property rights.

The case involves three Toledo buildings – located at 1137 1/2 North Erie St., 1315 Ironwood Ave., and 953 Butler St. – police have said were used by drug dealers in 1994 and 1995 to sell crack cocaine.

The state sought injunctions against the landlords of the three buildings that could have meant that the buildings would be padlocked shut or forfeited entirely.

But the buildings’ three landlords said they had no idea their properties were being used for that purpose. State law requires that, in order for an injunction to be placed on a building in cases like these, a landlord must know about the criminal activity and let it go on without alerting authorities.

As a result, trial courts and appeal courts in the three cases found that, since the landlords had no knowledge of the drug activity, an injunction against them could not be issued. The state appealed the case to the Supreme Court.

Bert Puligandla, an assistant Lucas County prosecutor, said the government should not be required to prove a landlord knew about drug activity before an injunction can be filed.

While he called his proposal “admittedly harsh,” Mr. Puligandla said it was needed to fight the problem of crack cocaine in Ohio’s central cities.

“So the ends justify the means?” Justice Andy Douglas asked. “So because we have that problem, we should eliminate the Fourth Amendment, eliminate trial by jury?”

Justice Evelyn Stratton noted that several of the individuals involved in drug activity had been arrested and at least one landowner had begun eviction proceedings against the tenants. “Why, then, do landowners have to suffer additional penalty?” she asked.

“An injunction gives landowners incentive to monitor their properties more closely,” Mr. Puligandla responded.

“But she’s a little old lady!” Justice Stratton replied, referring to Mary Rezcallah, one of the property owners.

Mr. Puligandla said landlords must be responsible for knowing about the illegal actions of their tenants. “We have to expect more than collecting the rent once a month,” he said.

Wesley Miller, attorney for one of the defendants, Teresa Boardman, said expecting landlords to know the everyday dealings of tenants is excessive.

“We cannot put our homeowners and landowners in a position where they’re doing surveillance on the streets, or trying to do criminal background checks on prospective tenants,” Mr. Miller said. “Law enforcement should do that.”

In 1994, Mrs. Boardman’s property on Butler Street was padlocked by the county prosecutor’s office as a crack house. Ten months later, the house was returned to her after Lucas County Common Pleas Court Judge William Skow found there was not a “sliver of evidence” that Mrs. Boardman had knowledge of drug activity in the house.

The Supreme Court gave no indication when it would rule.