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Drugs, thefts, assaults: Sacramento wants to ban 7 people from prominent business corridor

Here’s what the homeless situation looks like near Broadway in Sacramento

The City of Sacramento has sued to keep seven men, some homeless, out of the area around Broadway. A number of homeless people live in the area and the city plans to build a shelter nearby. Here’s what it looked like on Friday, August 16, 2019.
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The City of Sacramento has sued to keep seven men, some homeless, out of the area around Broadway. A number of homeless people live in the area and the city plans to build a shelter nearby. Here’s what it looked like on Friday, August 16, 2019.

In an aggressive tactic against seven Sacramento residents accused of a series of property and drug crimes along the Broadway corridor, the city of Sacramento has filed a lawsuit to ban them as a “public nuisance” from a wide swath of the area stretching from Highway 99 to Ninth Street.

The lawsuit, filed last week in Sacramento Superior Court, complains that an “excessive amount of police resources (are) being dedicated to the Designated Area” where residents and business owners “describe a high-crime area,” property values are threatened and “a sense of fear among citizens permeates the area.”

“Our team is constantly dealing with the aftermath of drug activity at the Designated Area,” Joan Borucki, executive director of the Greater Broadway District, said in a declaration filed with the suit. “This includes dealing with the human waste, needle pick-up, theft, car break-ins and vandalism on a daily basis.”

The suit names seven individuals – Sean Conner, Michael Dibiasio, Dimitriy Gologyuk, Troy Green, Kelvin C. Peterson, Joseph Soto and Kenneth Whitlock – and recites a number of allegations against each of them.

The allegations range from being drunk in public, shoplifting, assault, drug use, carrying concealed weapons and trespassing.

The 71-page lawsuit seeks an injunction that would bar the seven from being within the area “at any time,” a move that prominent Sacramento civil rights attorney Mark Merin said Friday he would fight.

“This is a huge assault on civil liberties,” Merin said, adding that he planned to reach out to the ACLU, National Lawyer’s Guild and civil libertarians to oppose the effort. “It’s just so shocking.

“They could impose this type of injunction on everybody on the American River. They could really take the entire city of Sacramento and make it an exclusion zone so it starts to look like South Africa.”

Merin said that he has not been contacted by any of the seven targeted defendants and believes the city could initially win an injunction because the individuals may be difficult to locate and serve with notice of the suit. None of the seven could immediately be located for comment Friday.

City officials defended the lawsuit, saying it is a necessary step to reduce problems associated with a small number of individuals rather than target homeless people.

“Homelessness is not a crime, and this lawsuit does not seek to make it one,” Mayor Darrell Steinberg said in a statement. “What the city is attempting to do is safeguard the public safety and well being of residents and businesses in the Broadway corridor who have been subjected to ongoing criminal activity by a relatively small number of people, some of whom also happen to be homeless.

“It is not a civil right to consume drugs in public, expose oneself in public, assault members of the public or steal from local businesses.”

California law applies

Injunctions of this type, called the “civil abatement remedy,” are available to cities under state law when arresting and charging suspects in the traditional manner does not solve problems in the area.

“It’s not appropriate for every case, but is appropriate for some cases when they rise to the level where every other law enforcement tool available is still not addressing the problem and the neighborhood and the business district is plagued by these problems,” said City Attorney Susana Alcala Wood.

In order to seek the injunction, the city had to prove that the seven men are causing a majority of crime in that area, or “hot zone.” The city attorney’s office was working on the case for more than a year, Alcala Wood said.

“We really do require a high standard before we file a lawsuit,” Alcala Wood said. “What we seek is just to have them not be there anymore so that this community can heal and recover.”

The men are still allowed in the area until a judge grants the injunction. Alcala Wood said she does not expect that decision to come this month.

The lawsuit comes as the city continues to struggle with its burgeoning homeless population and coincides with a new city effort to improve the Broadway corridor by making it friendlier to pedestrians and cyclists.

The area the city is targeting extends roughly from Ninth Street east to Highway 99 and from W Street south to Second Avenue, in the Land Park and Curtis Park neighborhoods. The area the seven would be excluded from includes Gunther’s Ice Cream, the Tower Cafe, the Sacramento Historic City Cemetery and the Bike Dog Taproom, as well as many other businesses and restaurants.

Sacramento police say in the lawsuit that the area accounts for 45 percent of all arrests made in the overall patrol beat area.

“This corridor has been the focus of many complaints, which are attributable in large part to certain individuals who are drawn to the Broadway Corridor because of the criminal activities that take place there,” Sgt. Greg Galliano wrote in a declaration filed with the suit. “For years, the Broadway corridor has been a place where individuals may go to purchase, acquire and use narcotics-related paraphernalia.

“Drugs, including cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines, can be acquired inexpensively.”

The suit recounts numerous examples of crimes reported along the Broadway corridor, including an incident over the summer when a young couple heading to Tahoe stopped at the Tower Cafe for dinner and returned to their car to find their suitcases stolen, along with an engagement ring the man planned to surprise his companion with.

“The couple shared their bad experience with friends and family and made it clear that they would never stop by Sacramento again,” according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also details extensive allegations against the defendants, including 20 police contacts with Conner dating back to 2017.

Conner, 35, is currently being held in the Sacramento County Jail on a misdemeanor charge of battery upon an elder. Offenses by him cited in the lawsuit include refusing to leave the Walgreens at 14th and Broadway, chasing a victim with a baseball bat at 23rd and W streets, assaulting an elderly person near the Broadway light rail station and being found naked on a sidewalk at 14th and W streets.

Green was listed as being cited for trespassing several times, including once when he allegedly was found sleeping under a restaurant table, while Peterson was accused of unlawful camping and storing property in an unlawful place.

Councilman Steve Hansen, who represents a section of the affected area, said the city already has beefed up police presence in some areas.

“We’ve been working with the neighbors and the business community to make sure the Broadway corridor stays safe,” he said. “While I don’t know the particulars of the injunction, I do know several of these individuals have come to my attention because of serious crimes in the vicinity and I am glad to see the police department and the city attorney’s office taking this seriously.

“We’ve also added resources – additional patrol cars and overtime officers as well as the downtown streets team to make sure the W-X Broadway corridor continues to be a good place to live, do business and visit.”

Borucki, the Greater Broadway District director, said in an interview that business and property owners in the area have been experiencing repeated theft and vandalism issues from the same people for about two years.

“”Each individual little theft or vandalism is a small crime in and of itself, but when they accumulate over time it becomes a bigger issue, so we’re kind of hoping this helps,” Borucki said. “It gives another tool to law enforcement in the district, so we’ll see how it works.”

Not all of the seven men named in the complaint are homeless, she said.

“We have other homeless people in the Broadway district who don’t cause those problems,” Borucki said.

Troubles on Broadway

The AutoZone at 19th and Broadway loses about $1,000 a month in merchandise, Borucki said.

Broken windows have also been a huge issue, Borucki said.

“It becomes a deterrent,” Borucki said. “That’s what (customers) leave with, this vision of having that bad experience.”

Last month, Sacramento police arrested multiple people at a house police said was being used as a drug lab near the 2400 block of X Street, which is within the boundaries of the injunction. After investigating the house for months, police arrested a man and a woman for manufacturing narcotics, and cited eight people for a variety of drug charges including possession of heroin and methamphetamine.

The city plans to open a tent-like 100-bed homeless shelter in a vacant state-owned lot at X Street and Alhambra Boulevard.

A grassy lot near Highway 99 between X Street and Broadway in Sacramento could be the next site for a large city-run homeless shelter under a proposal by Councilman Jay Schenirer in March 2019.

Homeless people who sleep under the overpass and along the Broadway corridor would have first priority to be admitted to the shelter, city officials have said.

The shelter would also provide mental health and mental services, as well as help finding housing. People would not need to be screened for drugs and alcohol before being admitted to the shelter, but would not be able to use them inside.

The shelter will not open for more than a year, and still requires state approval because the land is owned by Caltrans.

Borucki said her organization is in favor of the shelter.

“I would rather see these people getting help instead of sleeping on the sidewalk outside of our businesses,” Borucki said.

Andrew Skanchy, who owns residential and commercial properties in the Broadway corridor, said tenants have complained about theft, campers, broken windows and RVs parked under the freeway that seem to him to be “havens of drug activity.”

And although he wants to see a cleaner, safer district, he said the lawsuit itself might not fully address the crime and transiency problem in the area.

“I’m agnostic on that (the lawsuit),” Skanchy said. “A lawsuit against a few individuals certainly won’t solve the problem.”

He said that while camping ordinances should be enforced, homeless people need a place to go — like a local shelter — and he supports the city’s broader efforts to make incremental progress in that direction.

Various local and regional governments have attempted to address homeless problems by going to court to ban sleeping in public or aggressive panhandling, but have frequently been denied by the courts.

Merin said Sacramento’s effort sounds similar to past attempts to corral gangs with anti-gang ordinances, but added that he had never seen one as broad as the Sacramento lawsuit.

“I haven’t seen it elsewhere, and my suspicion is that some organization of cities or district attorneys got together and came up with a model and went to their cities and said, ‘Hey, you have a problem?’ This is a way of circumventing the criminal process,” he said.

If the city is successful, Merin said, officials could use it to target other individuals seen as a nuisance and bar them from an area without resorting to trial, and could extend the boundaries of the designated areas being targeted.

Such lawsuits are rare, but similar tactics have been used in Sacramento in the past.

In 2007, acting on citizen complaints, the city won a court order barring 24 alleged drug dealers and users from returning to James McClatchy Park at Fifth Avenue and 33rd Street in Oak Park.

And three years ago the city targeted one South Oak Park man it accused of arson, defecating in public, lewd conduct and other offenses, filing a lawsuit to bar him from the area for good.

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