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10/21/2001
Property code scofflaws targeted - Delaforum.com

The state's chief magistrate agreed to meet with a representative of the county law department in an effort to reach an agreement by which housing code violations will be
concentrated in one or two justice of the peace courts.

Meanwhile, state Representative Robert Valihura said he will complete the drafting of proposed state legislation which will specify penalties for first-time and increasingly stiff ones for repeat violators, including jail terms of up to 30 days for persons with multiple convictions for the same offense who show no intent to remedy the illegal situation for which they were cited.

A third approach would be for the county to correct the offensive conditions and bill the property owner for the cost of doing so. If the bill were not paid, the county could seek a judgment in Court of Chancery. The county also could bring charges on Court of Common Pleas, which has broader jurisdiction and ability to impose tougher sanctions than justice of the peace courts.

Those options were discussed on Oct. 19 at a meeting of the committee authorized by the General Assembly to study what can be done to remedy the county's apparent inability to enforce its laws covering the condition of properties. The issue was raised when Delaforum reported on a case in which a Claymont property owner allegedly ignored several fines and continued to maintain his residence in an unkempt condition.

In a report to the committee responding to a request to review that and a similar case, Chief Magistrate Patricia Griffin said that fines that have been levied have either been paid in full or are in the process of being paid. County Councilman Robert Weiner, who initially raised the issue, said that her report did not address the numerous continuances and suspended fines in the cases.

A difficulty, Griffin said, is that each time the defendants have been in court they were formerly charged with only a single day's violation rather than continuing violations. The courts must deal with the specifics of the cases before them, she said and recommended that guidelines be established to determine how often and in what time period an inspector must see the same conditions in order to charge a continuous violation.

On the other hand, she recommended that nothing be done to limit magistrates' ability to suspend sentences. "Conditional suspension of fines, in the cases examined, have been used in attempts to coerce defendants into compliance," she said.

Valihura, who chairs the committee, said that it is questionable whether county officials "have the political will" to seek drastic penalties, such as jail time, in most cases. "Do we really want to send somebody to jail for not cutting their grass?" he said, adding that the law and procedures should be geared toward remedying unwanted situations. "What we really want is for the violation to be corrected," he said.

Amending state law to eliminate the existing conflict with county law -- the county code provides for jail sentences for repeat violations while the state does not empower justices of the peace to do more than impose a fine of up to $1,000 for that kind of offense -- will have the effect of giving magistrates specific guidelines based on how frequently a defendant is brought into court on the same charges, he said.

After being told that the city of Wilmington handles all its property code violations in the same court -- primarily because there is only one justice of the peace court in the city -- and assigns a lawyer in the city solicitor's office responsibility for prosecuting those cases, the committee reached a consensus that there is a measure of consistency inherent in such an arrangement. In the city, such cases are tried at the same time on the same day of the week so that, for that period of time, the court is, in effect, a housing-law court.

Griffin's report said that, in the fiscal year ended June 30, six justice of the peace courts handled 458 county code violations while four handled 2,408 city code violations. Of the latter, 2,241 were handled in Court No. 20.

The size of the county would preclude hearing the cases in a single court, but Griffin agreed that it might be possible to use just two courts to the same end. She recommended, however, that the county adopt a policy of having one of its lawyers prosecute all cases that go to trial. At present, lawyers handled only the major ones; county code enforcement officers do the rest.

Acting county attorney Eric Episcopo said the county's objective is consistency in applying sanctions for code violations and that consolidation would in all likelihood do that.

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