City Hall

South Dallas Property Owner Sues City Over Habitual Criminal Property Designation

The Dallas Police Department put up the camera that captured this video to help build a case against Hoppenstein properties.
The Dallas Police Department put up the camera that captured this video to help build a case against Hoppenstein properties. Screenshot, city of Dallas
Dallas authorities say people are loitering, dealing drugs and stunt driving on Norman Hoppenstein’s properties. The city has taken Hoppenstein to task for supposedly allowing the offenses. Using its nuisance abatement ordinance, Dallas has threatened him with annual fines if he doesn’t do more to stop crime at the two locations.

Hoppenstein filed a lawsuit against the city after it targeted his properties with the ordinance. “We let the city know that we’ve got crime going on, and we’ve asked them multiple times to come out and check crime and stop crime,” said Warren Norred, Hoppenstein’s attorney. “Too often it doesn’t happen.”

Passed in 2017, the city’s nuisance abatement ordinance was meant to involve property owners and the community in reducing crime and to hold parties that tolerate habitual crime accountable. But Hoppenstein is one of several who have accused the city of unfairly shifting the police's responsibilities onto property owners and business owners.

In his lawsuit, Hoppenstein claims he incurred damages caused by the city’s “failure to police” and that Dallas is pressuring him to do the public safety work he “has already paid for with tax dollars.”

On April 26, the city sent a notice regarding 3308 Elsie Faye Heggins St., owned by Hoppenstein Properties Inc. If the owner failed to provide evidence of reasonable crime prevention measures, he could face an annual $4,926 fee. Getting a habitual criminal property designation basically means you didn't do your part in helping DPD prevent crime on your property.

The letter said there were seven abatable offenses on the property between Oct. 6, 2020, and April 21, 2021. It instructed the property owner to search the city’s website or make an open records request to get more information about the criminal offenses.

The next day, the city sent a letter regarding another Hoppenstein Property that is leased by a retail convenience store called Ruben’s Grocery. Between March 9 and 18, 2020, the criminal offenses ranged from criminal trespass to marijuana possession.

The nuisance abatement process begins after five documented "abatable" criminal activities occur at a property during a 12-month period. At that point, the property goes under review. The owner or their representative is given a notice to meet with police and the Dallas City Attorney's Office to prove they made attempts to reduce crime on their property before the preliminary designation. It's an offense to not attend this meeting.

If property owners can’t prove they took reasonable steps to stop crime, they’ll receive a final designation as a habitual criminal property. But in this time, authorities are looking at more than crime on the property. They want to make sure it’s up to snuff in every other way, too.

The lawsuit claims the habitual criminal properties process is too vague and leads to “the city and the police using ambiguous rules against businesses based on personal preference."

One of the things an owner can present is proof that they’ve implemented Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, or CPTED.

Dallas City Code defines this as “a multi-disciplinary approach to reducing criminal behavior through environmental design by integrating the following concepts, among others, on property: natural surveillance that eliminates hiding places for people to engage in crime unnoticed; clear delineation of private space from public space; and controlled access onto private property.”

But there’s no set standard for how these things should be implemented, and the ordinance doesn’t require property owners to be given any guidance on CPTED before the accord meeting.

“We’ve asked [the city] multiple times to come out and check crime and stop crime. Too often it doesn’t happen.” – Warren Norred, attorney

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If the properties get slapped with the habitual criminal property designation, the owner has the chance to  appeal in a hearing before the Permit and License Appeal Board. If the board upholds the designation, the owner has to pay an annual fee, and placards will be posted on the property labeling it a habitual criminal location.

Both of the Hoppenstein properties have been given a final designation. The Ruben’s Grocery location got stuck with a $2,802 annual fine until the police chief decides to reverse the designation. The fee for the Elsie Faye Heggins property is $4,926.

Norred appealed the final designation of the Elsie Faye Heggins property at a Permit and License Appeal Board hearing Thursday.

He said the purpose of the hearing and the designation process is to determine if the owner took reasonable steps. Norred stresses that the ordinance doesn’t say the property owner has to take every measure recommended by the city.

“What this all is about is making sure my client winds up hiring the right people to take care of the policing that the city should be taking care of,” Norred said. “We’re not encouraging crime, we’re not tolerating crime. When we see crime, we tell people about it.”

Norred said these designations often hinge on whether or not an owner decides to hire security to patrol their property. But he doesn’t think that’s a reasonable step for a property owner to have to take. Hoppenstein has surveillance cameras on the property that he monitors, he had parking signs put up and moved trash cans that DPD indicated could be used for storing drugs, Norred said.

He said the ordinance is too subjective, and because it doesn’t lay out specific criteria, these determinations are often left to the discretion of the city. Norred said he and Hoppenstein couldn’t get a straight answer from the city and police about what they needed to do to avoid the designation.

Norred challenged the nuisance abatement detective testifying at the hearing to provide specific steps that would prevent the designation on the Elsie Faye Heggins property. The detective said installing a gate and parking dividers and hiring security would be a good place to start.

He pressed the detective on how many hours security guards needed to patrol the property. The detective said he would have to review the crime data to come back with an answer. Norred said some of these things cost enough money “to make any of these organizations fall apart.”

Charles Kight, one of the board members, delivered a tough line of questioning.

“The appellant says that the city is not, maybe, forthcoming with what the requirements are. I’ve had a similar concern for some time,” Kight said. He asked if there are any records of what’s being said during the meetings with property owners after they’ve received the preliminary designation.

“It’s hard to prove what you said to the appellant if there’s no written record." – Charles Kight, Permit and License Appeal Board member

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“Is there no official report in Dallas of what was said and what went on in those meetings and what requests were made of the appellant for changes?” Kight said. The answer was no.

“I’ll ask the city attorney,” Kight added. “Ordinarily, if there’s a requirement under the law to have a meeting, someone will take a minute to write a paragraph of what was said. It’s unreasonable to me to think two required meetings have no documentation in the city of what was discussed. Can you comment?”

The city attorney said both the detective and he keep personal records of meetings they have. He said typically those are privileged documents.

“It’s hard to prove what you said to the appellant if there’s no written record,” Kight said. “And I almost would like you to reconsider. I don’t think that was your personal notes. I think those are official Dallas city notes.

Kight said if they have records of those meetings they don’t want to show it “implies maybe you don’t want [us] to see what you said.” Kight said he has asked for these meeting notes in many other cases before.

Ultimately, though, the board upheld the final determination because they said Hoppenstein didn’t do enough. Norred said it seems nothing is enough when it comes to these criminal nuisance abatement cases. That's why he’s taking up the issue in court with the Hoppenstein property lawsuit.

Norred filed a motion to temporarily halt the city’s nuisance abatement ordinance, but that motion was denied. The suit continues to make its way through the pipeline. In a federal lawsuit, Norred is also representing the owners of Jim’s Car Wash, who also say they’ve been targeted by the city.
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Jacob Vaughn, a former Brookhaven College journalism student, has written for the Observer since 2018, first as clubs editor. More recently, he's been in the news section as a staff writer covering City Hall, the Dallas Police Department and whatever else editors throw his way.
Contact: Jacob Vaughn