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Prosecutors search for drug use, overgrown shrubs – even Wi-Fi – to curb blight

Ron Linthicum and Joy Smiley, right, look for signs of prostitution and drug use with small business owner Seth Astle near Watt Avenue on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, in Sacramento, Calif. Linthicum and Smiley are community prosecutors with the Sheriff's north division office. Their work focuses on nuisance properties like hotels with obvious signs of prostitution and drug use or landlords with numerous code violations.
Ron Linthicum and Joy Smiley, right, look for signs of prostitution and drug use with small business owner Seth Astle near Watt Avenue on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, in Sacramento, Calif. Linthicum and Smiley are community prosecutors with the Sheriff's north division office. Their work focuses on nuisance properties like hotels with obvious signs of prostitution and drug use or landlords with numerous code violations. aseng@sacbee.com

For generations, the Scandia Family Fun Center has been a place where kids while away a couple hours playing miniature golf, hitting balls in the batting cages or trying new arcade games.

But a few months ago, less savory activities outside the amusement center near Interstate 80 were taking their toll, said general manager Steve Baddley.

Big rigs sat for hours along the main road leading to Scandia, just off the Madison Avenue exit. Guests at the adjacent Motel 6 would park in his lot. Signs of prostitution and drug use were visible.

“It’s not even on our property, but we knew it was influencing our area,” he said.

Baddley received help from two Sacramento County prosecutors who are going after blight and criminal activities to help residents and businesses in Sacramento County reclaim their communities.

In Scandia’s case, Deputy District Attorneys Ron Linthicum and Joy Smiley got “No Parking” signs posted along Interstate Avenue, forcing the big rigs to move along. They required Motel 6 to hire more security guards, part of a regionwide agreement with the chain to crack down on crime. They suggested adding outside lighting and fencing along the edge of the Scandia property to discourage nighttime visitors.

“It was the first time I’ve seen someone come in and say ‘I want to fix this area,’” and actually do it, Baddley said. “Whatever they did, there’s been a tremendous amount of change for the better.”

Linthicum and Smiley are well-versed in crime prevention through environmental design, a set of standards that property owners can use to discourage trespassing and loitering. They regularly recommend lighting the outside of buildings, planting bushes with thorns to prevent homeless people from sleeping in them and covering outside electrical outlets.

The community prosecutors are assigned to clean up neighborhoods plagued by nuisances like absentee landlords or chronic low-level offenders. There are four other community prosecutors – one assigned to downtown Sacramento, one in Rancho Cordova and two in the south area of the county.

Working out of a cramped office in the Sheriff’s North Division building, Smiley and Linthicum work closely with Problem Oriented Police Officers and code enforcement officials to identify and alleviate blight.

They attend neighborhood meetings, start business watch groups and work with the Public Defender’s Office, county mental health workers and homeless services to find options for the long-term homeless, whether it’s jail time for repeat nuisance crimes, a sobriety program or mental health treatment.

For property owners looking to discourage loitering, they recommend a series of simple changes. When the Orangevale Branch Library started receiving citizen complaints about people gathering and sleeping around their building, Smiley and Linthicum told the library to turn off the Wi-Fi at night.

The loiterers went elsewhere.

“It seems so simple,” Linthicum said. “You can’t believe it would be that simple.”

Linthicum is assigned to North Highlands, New Foothill Farms, Antelope, Elverta and Rio Linda. Smiley covers Arden Arcade, Orangevale, Fair Oaks, Old Foothill Farms and Carmichael.

Originally agricultural settlements, those areas of the county developed as the McClellan and Mather air force bases and Aerojet brought jobs out of the downtown core after World War II. Developers began eyeing northeastern parts of the county for suburban development to house workers making the trek out from Sacramento, local historian William Burg said.

But as often happens with suburbs, the next best place to live came along, leaving older communities with more economic and crime challenges.

“Functionally (these communities) don’t look any different than the ones in city limits,” Burg said. But “this is county government. Counties aren’t really supposed to be responsible for developed urban areas, which these places essentially are.”

The community prosecution unit of the District Attorney’s Office began in the early 2000s, but was reduced to just one downtown prosecutor during the recession when every department faced deep cuts. Smiley worked as a community prosecutor in the north part of the county before she was reassigned to work foreclosures when the budget was cut.

Two years ago, the Board of Supervisors added back funding for the Community Prosecution unit and Smiley returned. Linthicum worked in special investigations before he worked on community prosecution.

Smiley, who calls herself the “bad cop” in their partnership despite her name, said they work together on most big projects, particularly in Arden Arcade, where many of her cases are.

They won one case in October against the owner of Twin Gardens Apartments in Carmichael and Belfort Arms Apartments in Arden Arcade, who had ignored repeated code violation notices.

County officials found that owner Cameron Razavi failed to provide a permanent heating source in the Twin Gardens Apartments on top of a slew of other code complaints, which allowed them to press forward with criminal charges. The DA’s Office eventually charged Razavi with 26 misdemeanor counts of having a substandard dwelling, failing to comply with an order to correct problems and allowing junk to pile up.

He pleaded no contest to two counts of allowing a substandard dwelling and one count of junk accumulation in exchange for three years of probation, community service and a $15,000 fine. The issues at Belfort Arms didn’t quite meet the threshold for criminal charges, but prosecutors were able to tie that property into the deal to force Razavi to cope with the problems there.

He faces deadlines to clean up problems in the two buildings or he’ll face jail time, Smiley said.

Sterling Moore, who was hired to manage both properties in June, said he’s on track to complete repairs by the February deadline. He said problems in the buildings were a result of prior bad management.

“(Razavi) wants these issues taken care of,” he said. “He’s owned the property for a long time and this just happened in the last few years.”

Closing such cases reminds Smiley that she really enjoys the work she’s doing. Instead of being in court all day, she spends most days in the field, talking to people and investigating complaints.

“I feel like I’m benefiting a larger area,” she said.

Ellen Garrison: 916-321-1920, @EllenGarrison

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