Stuff It

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Instead, the city sued Davenport for failing to bring an end to crime in his area, even though his property is surrounded by crack houses, homeless encampments, open-air prostitutes, bootleggers and jackleg barbecue pits that the city did not sue.

Davenport naïvely tried to argue that he's an honest businessman and it's the city's job to end crime. His job, he said, is to provide soap and spray nozzles for people who want to wash their cars, hopefully at a profit.

Judge David W. Evans, in the 193rd Dallas County Civil District Court, pasted back Davenport's ears on that one. "The court thinks that the defendants have a major flaw in their thinking about this property," Evans said during the trial last year. "They keep wanting to say it's the city's job, it's the city's job.

"Now, what if the city was nothing but a private owner adjacent to them suing for a declaratory judgment that the place is a public and statutory nuisance? It ain't the neighbor's job."

I keep reading and re-reading this incredible transcript, mentally blubbering to myself: Yeah, but...but...but, Judge. The city is not a private owner.

This judge goes on and on. He tells Davenport that if he's going to insist on police protection, he needs to move to the suburbs. "Like the response time in Cedar Hill where I live is three to five minutes," Judge Evans lectures. "And the response time in the city of Dallas is about 40 minutes, unless it's like a gunshot or a murder or something."

You dummy. You deliberately go and purchase a business within the municipal boundaries of the city of Dallas, and then you dare to come in here and tell this court you should have police protection.

Count two (after one count of white guy in black area): Failure to Live in Suburbs.

The whole focus, intent and design of the new law, to be signed this week by the governor, is to tell Dallas that Dallas is wrong. It is the city's job to fight crime, not property owners.

The new law says that if you call 911 and you cooperate with the cops when they show up, you can't be blamed for the crime that happens on your property. (Judge Evans, are you listening?)

In their statement of intent, the authors of the new law go to great lengths to say that this law is intended to reverse, kill, annihilate, expunge forever the strange Dallas doctrine that says crime fighting is the responsibility of private property owners.

But to hear Dallas officials talk, they think they own the battle in Austin, and therefore nothing much has changed. City attorney Tom Perkins called the House hearings a useful source of "guidance," but he said, "We are going to continue to engage in enforcement efforts."

Police Chief Kunkle told me he thinks the change in the law is one of very minor technical wording and does not represent a significant legal shift.

Mayor Laura Miller gave me a tough line that sounded a whole lot like the old way of thinking, that it's the property owner's responsibility to eliminate crime on his property: "If somebody sells dope in front of my house, I'm going to tell him he has no right to be there and to get off my property," she said.

She said the city will continue to use the law to go after certain businesses where there is too much crime. In a reference to a Stemmons corridor hotel owned by Budget Suites of America, the mayor said: "You have a hot-sheet motel, with a meth lab in one room and prostitutes in another. There are certain places that have enough crime that they rise to a different level."

None of this is well-received by the many witnesses who traipsed to Austin to testify against the city and who felt that they achieved a great victory over the city in the outcome. Steve Stefani, in-house counsel for Budget Suites at its headquarters in Las Vegas, said, "It's predictable and laughable that the mayor and other city officials are saying that they won."

Stefani also said the mayor was mischaracterizing events at his company's Dallas property. "What she's describing as a meth lab was an undercover arrest that occurred because we brought the police in and gave the police the tips and set up the undercover arrest in September of '04. There was not a methamphetamine lab. There was a pot on the stove that had water in it."

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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