Seizure Disorder

Seattle's "drug nuisance abatement" program is a menace to law-abiding property owners.

Etta Mae Franklin is 78 years old. The seventh and eighth decades of her life have not been easy. Her husband, a seaman and sandblaster, was killed on the job. One of her 10 children died of cancer. And three years ago, the city of Seattle came close to taking away her home.

The city had targeted Franklin's modest residence, one block from Garfield High School in a troubled Central District neighborhood, for "abatement," through which the government seizes private property in the name of public safety. Franklin herself was never accused of wrongdoing, but she had a delinquent, live-at-home son suspected of dealing drugs. On January 28, 1995, the Seattle Police Department obtained a search warrant and raided Franklin's home. They found no drugs and made no arrests. On October 13, 1995, the cops got a second search warrant and again made no arrests.

According to the police report, Etta Mae Franklin told the officers "that she did not want to lose her house." She agreed to evict her 41-year-old son, Edmund McNeil, who allegedly had sold drugs to a police informant. But the city proceeded with abatement anyway, and as it closed in on Franklin's home, her lawyer, James Kempton, saw the alarming implications:

"The city seems to wish to penalize Etta Mae Franklin for failing to stop an alleged activity which she is unaware of and over which she would have no control if she were aware. If the Court were to let the City have its way, we could easily resolve the entire drug problem in the Central Area, by telling every homeowner that drug activity is illegal, then abat[ing] their homes if accusations are made by neighbors of frequent pedestrian traffic, etc.

"This is obviously an unconstitutional overreaching by the City in an attempt to deter an alleged drug dealer without arresting him. While the City's petition and supporting affidavits create a lot of suspicion, the obvious answer would be to make an arrest and charge accordingly....Mrs. Franklin has done everything within her power to see that her home is maintained in a lawful manner."

Franklin's 730-pound son was eventually arrested for drug activity, but no jail would accept him, court records show, "because of his girth." In the meantime, Kempton won a court decision to set aside the abatement of the innocent mother's home. But it came too late to spare Etta Mae Franklin the grief and financial hardship that accompanied her three-year nightmare. Adding insult to outrage, the city billed Franklin for the cost of filing the civil action. Reflecting on the ordeal, Kempton says, "It was just cruel."

Etta Mae Franklin is not the sort of person legislators had in mind when they created the law enforcement tool known as drug nuisance abatement in 1988. At the height of public concern about crack cocaine, the Washington legislature approved a law enabling local governments and private citizens to go to court to condemn property tied to drug activity. During the legislative debate, then-state Sen. Janice Niemi (D-Seattle) identified who the primary targets should be: "Of course, these are crack houses we are talking about, particularly in the city of Seattle."

A model of the law's intended application was the February 1990 closure of a crack house operated by a Cuban gang in Tacoma's Hilltop neighborhood, which resulted in the arrest of 28 members of the infamous Marielitos crime ring. The King County Prosecutor's Office, which handles criminal cases in the unincorporated area outside of Seattle, has used the law sparingly. Almost all of the county's drug nuisance abatements since 1988 have resulted in arrests of property owners involved directly in drug-related activities. One case involved a home located north of Seattle that was under investigation for operating a drug ring and a U.S. Postal Service mail scam; the owners were arrested for multiple heroin sales. Another involved a methamphetamine lab run out of a Kent-area home and investigated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

But critics charge that Seattle City Attorney Mark Sidran has applied the abatement law unfairly and inappropriately. The U.S. Department of Justice is reviewing a discrimination complaint filed against the city last summer by the National Black Chamber of Commerce. The main focus of the complaint is minority-owned businesses targeted for closure. But once investigators start digging, it will be hard to ignore the scores of other property owners whose rights may have been trampled in Sidran's war on drugs.

An examination of the city attorney's files raises troubling questions about Sidran's energetic and unscrutinized application of the law--and the willingness of the state Liquor Control Board and the judicial system to support him. I reviewed 28 drug abatement cases that were filed by the city during Sidran's tenure, from 1990 to the present. (Of about 100 total cases brought by Sidran's office, roughly two-thirds were inaccessible because of ongoing investigations or for administrative reasons. Of the remaining 36, eight are archived and could not be obtained in time for this article. I reviewed the remaining 28 at the City Attorney's Office or through the King County Courthouse.)

The files document several instances of apparent overreaching and misallocation of police resources. Sidran's targets have included:

  • Rose Ervin, a grandmother described in police records as "an amputee confined to a wheelchair and over eighty years of age." Like Etta Mae Franklin, Ervin was never suspected of having engaged in or condoned illegal drug activity in her home.
  • Mae Fosha, another elderly grandmother who had suffered a stroke and a heart attack and undergone two bypass surgeries. She was not accused of drug crimes and went out of her way to meet with police in the East Precinct to help solve a neighborhood crime problem that did not involve her or anyone living in her house.
  • Preston Scott Sr., who contacted the Seattle Police Department and "was eager to try and eliminate drug activity" at a home he rented to his grandson. The grandson, Cornell Callendret, was suspected of being a dealer but was never arrested.
  • Westerton Currie, an unemployed 71-year-old Seattle resident with a third-grade education, who admitted he had a drug problem and said he needed help. In 1991, Currie's attorney, Jean Schiedler, raised compelling questions about the apparent lack of due process available to her client under the drug abatement statute:

"The City has provided simple affidavits of police officers, declarations reputedly from people within Mr. Currie's neighborhood and police reports inadmissible as hearsay to show the truth of the matters contained therein. Mr. Currie has no meaningful opportunity to challenge or respond to the allegations raised...no opportunity to cross-examine witnesses by which he would be deprived of his property. The court has no opportunity to independently review and assess the credibility of the witnesses or the strength of the evidence."

Similar complaints have been heard from owners of several small businesses targeted for closure. The most prominent local business entangled in Sidran's drug abatement web is Oscar's II, a two-decade-old family tavern in Seattle's Central District owned by Oscar and Barbara McCoy. The McCoys are challenging Sidran's action as a violation of their civil and property rights. Their case, the state's first to challenge the constitutionality of drug abatement, is before the state Court of Appeals. Oral arguments were expected to begin in February.

Sidran argues that Oscar's II is a menace to the community. Yet only one citizen came to a July legislative hearing on reform of the drug abatement law to vouch for Sidran's claims, and she lived in a Belltown condo, miles away from the bar. After a 10-month undercover investigation and 11 alleged drug buys, no arrests were made and no criminal charges were brought against the McCoys or any of their employees.

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