By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
A federal jury has found that the City of Dallas violated outspoken landlady Christina Swann's civil rights when it tried to demolish her apartment building.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Jane Boyle ruled that the city violated Swann's civil rights when code-enforcement agents walked onto her property and began boarding up the building. The city has denied that charge, but failed to prove that the building required demolition. For more than two years, Swann has been arguing that the city deprived her of her right to due process when it sought to raze her small, eight-unit East Dallas apartment building ["Swann's song," December 28, 1995]. She claimed the city targeted her apartment because it interfered with plans to widen Haskell Boulevard.
A seven-member federal jury found that code-enforcement inspectors and supervisors did not act in good faith when they failed to notify Swann of a demolition hearing on her building, that they subjected Swann to unreasonable search and seizure when they forcibly boarded it up, and were negligent. City officials also illegally trespassed on Swann's property, the jury found.
City officials could not be reached for comment on the ruling. Swann is free to rent out the building, located at 917 N. Haskell, so long as it meets city building codes. The city has abandoned its efforts to demolish the building.
In December 1994, Channel 8 ran a series of broadcasts on Swann, depicting her fight against the city's code-enforcement department and urban rehab board. Swann was blatantly thwarting the city's efforts by pulling down window boards and placards from her building, insisting she had a right to protect her property because the city's actions were illegal. (She is suing the television station for slander.)
The jury agreed, awarding Swann $19,500. Three code-enforcement supervisors, Gavino Sotello (who has since left the city), Elizabeth Fernandez, and Aquila Allen were ordered to pay the landlady $50 apiece. Though delighted with the ruling, the award angered Swann, who believes it is far too low. "We are going to appeal that," she says.
Swann is also disappointed that the jury rejected her claim that city officials joined in a conspiracy against her and her property.
But Liza Farrow-Gillespie, Swann's attorney, hails the ruling. "The important thing is that the jury found these folks intentionally violated Christina's rights," Farrow-Gillespie says. "There have been quite a few cases against the URSB [Urban Rehabilitation Standards Board] and code enforcement," he says, "and the outcomes of those cases, as well as this one, have established that there is something very wrong with those agencies.