Normally, when we cover stories of unjust seizure and forfeiture in the United States, the guilty agency or agent is a law enforcement agent associated with the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, the access of law enforcement to vast seizure and forfeiture powers has led other public agencies in non-law enforcement sectors to obtain seizure and forfeiture powers. Of particular concern to me are the efforts by municipalities to endow municipal code enforcement task forces with broad powers (like the Cedar Falls (IA) municipal government or the Columbia (MO) Neighborhood Response Team).
Today’s story comes to us from Philadelphia, where a scandal is breaking involving officials with the Community Life Improvement Project (CLIP), an anti-blight campaign targeting ‘quality of life’ code violations through the city’s Neighborhood Transformation Initiative (NIT).
And when I say “a scandal is breaking”, I mean CLIP officials are being charged with felony offenses including racketeering, perjury, theft, and gun running. Apparently this municipal government agency has become a haven for pirates, who enter private residences at will to loot and plunder. From Courthouse News:
Accusing CLIP crews of committing a city-funded “crime wave” of “break-ins and thefts,” a Grand Jury in 2009 found that the crews “didn’t simply pocket stray knickknacks. They drove trucks to the houses and took everything …
“In several cases, the property owners were forced out or locked out of their houses, even though the CLIP crew had no legal authority to enter the properties or displace the occupants,” the Grand Jury found.
CLIP was designed to allow officials to respond quickly to property-code violations, by giving owners 20 days to remediate a violation or face unilateral action by city workers, who could cut weeds, remove trash or otherwise clean a property, then bill the owner for the services.
But what may have begun as a well-intentioned anti-blight program quickly transformed into something far more nefarious.
According to the Grand Jury: “One 75-year-old woman was at home … with her husband and disabled daughter when one of the CLIP crew members climbed in through her kitchen window and an … inspector broke in through her basement door. After removing the family from the house, the crew ransacked their home, stealing over $25,000 in cash and almost all of the furniture. The elderly woman walked two miles back to her house to see what was going on, but the supervisor would not ‘allow’ her stay. When she later asked the supervisor of the crew what had happened to all of the money and furniture from the house, he told her to get a lawyer. One of the crew members testified that the supervisor, Rick Sicinski, allowed them to take money from houses, saying it was ‘a fire hazard.’”
Using city-owned tools, cameras and vehicles, code-enforcement officials entered least six homes “over the course of several years” without consent and proceeded to “systematically” steal valuables, Tengood says.
“Once inside the homes, the conspirators systematically stole items of value from the premises. In the most egregious instances City trucks were actually driven to the target homes and their contents removed en masse: televisions; dining room furniture sets; floor safes; silver flatware settings; clothing; family heirlooms; and several large gun collections,” the complaint states, citing the Grand Jury report.
“The scheme was comprehensive in scope and specifically designed to intimidate, rob, and/or extort money and property from select residents of the northeast section of the City,” Tengood says.
And as if plundering the homes were not enough, the cooked-up violations “were served together with fraudulent or inflated bills for municipal services deemed necessary to remedy the violations,” according to Tengood’s complaint.
He claims the scheme was a cooperative effort among multiple city departments and “sub-departments,” including the Mayor’s Office of Community Services, the Solicitor’s Office, the Department of Licenses & Inspections and the Department of Streets.
Perpetrators ranged “from lower level inspectors, to program managers, and up through to the executive tier,” Tengood claims.
If only there were some Constitutional protection against this kind of general search power and the petty tyranny it engenders…