Law not easing efforts to evict drug dealers

The Gazette Feb 18, 1995
By Rick Smith Gazette staff writer

One month has passed since Cedar Rapids narcotics officers rammed their way through an apartment door on Fifth Avenue SE in Cedar Rapids, seizing crack cocaine and cash and arresting six people.

The raid, prompted by complaints by other tenants and neighbors to police, sent a reluctant landlord to court seeking an eviction.

A 1993 state statute — designed to give landlords a quick way to evict drug dealers and dangerous tenants if there is “a clear and present danger” — seemed the landlord’s perfect weapon.

It was not.

In fact, the 1993 law, in which landlords have placed much hope, is now disappointing them.

And in the eviction case at the apartment on Fifth Avenue SE, a judge’s interpretation of the law has left Cedar Rapids’ most-activist neighborhood group to fume.

“Quite frankly, we were shocked by the ruling,” said Dale Todd, newly elected president of the Wellington Heights Neighborhood Association. “If the sale of crack cocaine is not clear and present danger to the safety of the neighborhood, then what is?”

The 1993 statute allows a landlord to evict a tenant in three days if the landlord can meet the law’s standard of a clear and present danger to other tenants.

Evictions on other grounds often require a process of notices that can take two months.

Dick Rehman, a Cedar Rapids landlord and president of Landlords of Iowa, said the Legislature designed the statute principally for quick action against crack houses.

“We sure thought it would be very, very helpful for these exact type of things: somebody using drugs, selling drugs, somebody shooting a weapon off,” said Rehman. “We were very, very pleased that this passed.”

Landlords are less pleased now, he said.

“As some people have come to court and have not been able to get witnesses to get evictions, naturally your enthusiasm wanes,” he said.

The case that has Wellington Height’s Todd angry involves tenant Cynthia Robinson and her landlord, the Metro Area Housing Program (MAHP). MAHP property manager Bill Freeman said he reluctantly went to court last week to evict Robinson in the wake of the police raid Jan. 19 at Robinson’s apartment at 1560 Fifth Ave. SE.

Of the six people arrested at the apartment, three allegedly had crack cocaine on them. Two were charged with possession of crack cocaine with intent to deliver. One of the three others was Robinson’s husband. Detectives seized packaging material, crack pipes, crack “push rods,” documents and more. than $1,000 in cash, according to court documents.

In an affidavit to the court to obtain a warrant, to conduct the raid, detectives said they had received numerous complaints of drug dealing in the vicinity of 16th Street and Fifth Avenue SE, with reports of 50 to 60 people on some days entering and leaving Robinson’s apartment. An undercover police officer purchased crack cocaine, in the apartment three days before the January raid, detectives said in court documents.

Freeman took information concerning the raid to the eviction hearing as well as letters from a current tenant and a former tenant. They said they feared for their safety from the activity in the Robinson apartment.
District Associate Judge Nancy Baumgartner, however, refused the eviction.

Freeman said Baumgartner told him in court that she would not grant the eviction because he lacked testimony from first-hand witnesses, Robinson herself had not been charged with a crime and her husband had not had cocaine on him at the time of the police raid.

Robinson told the judge at the hearing she had no knowledge of anyone having crack cocaine in her apartment, and “I couldn’t prove differently,” said Freeman.

Todd, who has spearheaded the association’s crime-watch effort to help police identify likely illegal drug dealing in the Wellington Heights neighborhood, doesn’t understand the decision by Baumgartner, who, incidentally, lives in the neighborhood, too.

But landlord Rehman is not surprised with the ruling. He said he knows of other instances in which judges have not been satisfied with affidavits from fearful tenants or copies of police reports. Judges want to hear personally from police officers, who Rehman says are not always eager to testify in a civil matter when criminal charges are pending. And judges want to hear from fearful neighbors, who often are too afraid to testify, he said.

“It’s very, very difficult to get other tenants to go to testify, who really sometimes could even be putting their life on the line,” said Rehman. “If you have people dealing drugs, some have no compunctions about beating you up or using a knife or gun on you in retaliation.”

MAHP’s Freeman noted that he will be back in court with Robinson next week in an effort to evict her via a slower process for failure to pay rent. Robinson has been receiving housing assistance payments through the city’s leased housing program. Those are scheduled to cease because the arrests in her apartment classify as program violations. John Skogsbergh, city housing coordinator, has notified Robinson. His letter is part of the court record.