Dallas Makes Its Cops Break Laws to Seize Private Property

I've got a column in the print edition this week on the car wash on Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard about which I have written so much over the years, and I want to call your attention to it because I believe it zeroes in on a central issue too often ignored in the clamor and din.

Cops in Dallas are using an anti-panhandling ordinance (City Charter, Chapter 31, Section 31-35)) to ticket people for washing other people's cars for a fee at this self-service car wash. The ordinance they are using says it's a crime in Dallas to engage in "solicitation" at a self-serve car wash. It says solicitation, "means to ask, beg, solicit, or plead, whether orally or in a written or printed manner, for the purpose of receiving contributions, alms, charity, or gifts of items of value for oneself or another person."

In my column, you will see that I ran this ordinance by some civil rights lawyers, one of whom is quoted in the column, one of whom answered me after the deadline for the column, both of whom agreed that the solicitation ordinance is not aimed at nor does it apply to people who offer to do work for money.

See also: There Are Thugs at Jim's Car Wash in South Dallas.They Work for the City. Cops Barricade South Dallas Car Wash, Threaten Arrest If You Ask Too Many Questions Morning News Spends Five Whole Minutes "Reporting" in its Lame Attack on a Car Wash

But then there is also this. The same ordinance says, "It is a defense to prosecution under this subsection if the solicitation was being conducted on property with the advance written permission of the owner, manager, or other person in control of the property" at a self-service car wash. Not only do the owners of this car wash give permission, they want the freelance car washers to show up because they draw in the traffic. So even if the car washers were engaged in solicitation, which they are not, solicitation would be legal with the owners' permission.

All of that is just flat ignored by the police who continue to write these tickets with fines up to $500 against people already living hand-to-mouth.

There is an important back-story here. By word and by deed including a sloppy attempt at eminent domain, since withdrawn, City Hall has plainly conveyed that it wants the owners of the car wash to sell the property to someone else of City Hall's choosing. The owners do not want to sell.

The mayor of Dallas told me last December that the city attorney had advised him that, even without recourse to eminent domain, he could force a sale by using the city's "non-conforming use" laws: according to this formula, the city builds up a paper record to show that the car wash is a nuisance, then forces the property into a form of review by which the city can withdraw the underlying zoning. Voila! What was a perfectly legal business allowed by zoning on private land is all of a sudden an illegal use that the city can shut down by force.

But this process requires establishing a history of "nuisance." Knowing what position they are in, the owners of the car wash are meticulous about all of the requirements of the zoning in terms of maintenance of the property. So the city needs to find some other kind of nuisance going on there, and that would be criminal activity.

Mayor Mike Rawlings also told me last December he had asked the chief of police to set up an undercover operation at the car wash aimed at drug activity. The chief declined, the mayor said, explaining that the car wash was not a center of major drug activity. The entire surrounding neighborhood is a center of drug activity, but the car wash is not the center of that center.

So instead of a major drug operation, what I have been writing about lately is a major police anti-solicitation operation at the car wash. Police have been barricading the car wash, setting up a command post across the street -- several patrol cars with a dog team -- in order to combat the terrible plague of solicitation they say is going on at the car wash.

But it's not solicitation. It's work. For money. Work for money is not against the law. The cops know that. The city attorney has to know that.

When I went down there a couple Sundays ago, I found the cops on duty in a mood I would describe as somewhere between angry and sheepish. After threatening to arrest me for interfering with their operation when I asked questions, they shouted at me to go ask the mayor or the City Council why they were there.

I believe one of the really corrosive consequences of this misuse of the police is the cynicism it engenders in good cops. They know they are surrounded by a world of real crime and danger to citizens. They're not allowed to touch the nearby gambling house where a City Council member's father plays cards. But they are ordered to go across the street and harass hard-toiling poor people trying to survive by the sweat of their brows, in service a City Hall real estate scam, using a law that does not apply. It's a terrible way for the city to abuse its citizens. It's a terrible way for the city to misuse its cops.

This is a legitimate, private, law-abiding business on private property. At what point should we become ashamed of an operation by our city government in which laws are misconstrued -- the law effectively is broken repeatedly by the police themselves -- in order to oppress hard-working people and seize private property? I don't know about you. I'm ashamed already.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze