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Neighbors Complain of Death Threats

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Tuesday April 11, 2006

With South Berkeley residents complaining of threats against their lives following an appeal hearing in their Small Claims Court “drug house” lawsuit last week, questions are again being raised as to whether such lawsuits should be handled by city officials rather than by neighbors.  

Last January, Alameda County Court Commissioner Jon Rantzman awarded $5,000 apiece to 14 South Berkeley residents who had sued Oregon Street homeowner Lenora Moore in Small Claims Court, arguing that Moore allowed family members to operate a drug house out of the premises over a period of several years. 

Moore did not dispute the drug charges against several of her children and grandchildren, but claim-ed that she had little control over her offspring and was not involved in any drug dealing herself. 

Last weekend following an appeal hearing in the case, Oregon Street resident Sam Herbert circulated an email saying that three men made separate visits to a neighbor’s house, asking her to “deliver a message for me. She was told that I am ‘as good as dead,’ and describing me as a ‘Dead Woman Walking.’” 

Herbert concluded that “both of us took the threats seriously, and literally, as death threats.” 

Another plaintiff in the case, Laura Menard, told the Daily Planet in a telephone message that the Oregon Street neighbors were forced to represent themselves in Superior Court last week after they were turned down by six separate attorneys. 

“All of them said they were concerned about reprisals,” Menard said. 

In a telephone interview, Berkeley journalist Paul Rauber, the lead plaintiff in the case against Moore, called the threats “pretty serious.”’ 

Asked if such threats against the neighbors made it more desirable for the city to take the lead in such legal action rather than citizens themselves, Rauber said, “Oh, yeah. We’re already working on [city officials] to act on a declaration of a public nuisance against the Moore house.” 

Rauber said neighbors were continuing to take legal action against Moore “because [the city] is not doing it. It’s their job. That’s what we have city government for, to take care of situations like this. Guys with uniforms and guns should be handling these problems, not amateurs and neighbors like us.”  

The Oregon Street neighbors were advised in their small claims legal action by Neighborhood Solutions, an Oakland-based nonprofit that specializes in helping citizens bring nuisance abatement lawsuits. Neighborhood Solutions does not have attorneys on staff, and the Oregon Street neighbors represented themselves in Small Claims Court. 

But while Rauber said that Berkeley residents have been left to pursue legal action virtually on their own against what they call “drug house nuisances,” without City Hall help, Oakland residents are getting direct assistance from the office of the Oakland City Attorney and city councilmembers. 

On Saturday, residents of Oakland’s Fruitvale district held a street party celebrating the reclaiming of their block from drug dealers, in part because of lawsuits filed by City Attorney John Russo’s Neighborhood Law Corps. The law corps, a special collection of deputy city attorneys, filed lawsuits against three problem drug houses in the area. 

According to an article in the Sunday Oakland Tribune, Russo said that the law corps was able to do much more in the courts than residents can with a small claims nuisance lawsuit. 

“I can’t recommend that Berkeley citizens try to get the city to declare these problem properties a nuisance,” Rauber said, commenting on the differences between Oakland’s actions and Berkeley’s. “I would if [Berkeley] would do its job. But until they prove whose side they’re on, we’re going to have to take on the job ourselves.” 

Meanwhile Moore, a 74-year-old grandmother, has appealed the small claims court decision against her, and last week Superior Court Judge Wynne Carvill heard the case from scratch, listening to two days of testimony from Berkeley police officers and a collection of plaintiff neighbors describing drug dealing activities surrounding the Moore house. 

A ruling on the appeal is expected within days. 

The Superior Court hearing was not a half-hour old when plaintiffs won their first victory, with Moore’s attorney, Oakland lawyer James Anthony, dropping a portion of the appeals in eight of the cases. 

Anthony told the court that the arrest of one of Moore’s children on her premises on drug possession charges “created a nuisance per se under the law. I can’t argue that there wasn’t a nuisance created for the neighbors living closest to the house.” 

But Anthony continued the appeal against neighbors in the 1700 block of Oregon Street, a block away from the Moore dwelling, saying that “they would have to prove a nexus between the problems they experienced and any activities coming out of Ms. Moore’s house.” 

In addition, Anthony argued that all 14 of the cases should be thrown out because contrary to Small Claims Court procedures, the neighbors failed to make a monetary demand of Moore before bringing their action in court. 

“We aren’t too worried about that,” plaintiff Rauber said by telephone this week. Rauber said that plaintiffs took their demand letter to the lead attorney for the Small Claims Advisor Program of Alameda County. 

“She cleared it,” Rauber said. 

While using the Small Claims Court to put pressure on nuisance properties has generated considerably controversy in recent months, the practice is gaining popularity throughout the state. 

The cities of Fairfield, Santa Rosa, Concord, Vallejo, and Modesto all post web pages promoting citizen small claims court nuisance abatement lawsuits against alleged drug houses, with detailed instructions as to how citizens can take those actions. Some of the websites even provide telephone numbers for city staff members who can assist citizens in filing the suits. 

But the website for the Beat Health Program of the Vallejo Police Department, perhaps inadvertently, points out the contradiction in such programs that encourage citizens to participate in law enforcement activities. The web page notes that Beat Health “is a unit of the Vallejo Police Department designed to supplement traditional law enforcement and approaches to drug and gang-related problems in Vallejo,” calling it a “nationally recognized program which started in Oakland.” 

A notation on the page says that “neighbors are a main source of information” about drug and gang-related nuisance properties that come under the jurisdiction of the Vallejo Police Beat Health Program, adding that such citizens “can remain anonymous. They are thus shielded from retaliation, both physical or legal.” 

But the Vallejo Police website then goes on to say that “neighborhood groups can also be of assistance if property owners do not take any action to abate the nuisance or are not willing to cooperate.… [N]eighborhood groups can sue property owners in Small Claims Court for allowing a public nuisance to emanate from his/her property.” 

How such neighborhood groups can sue, but still remain anonymous and be shielded from physical and legal retaliation, is not explained in the Vallejo Police Department website. 

Meanwhile, Lenora Moore’s attorney is saying that citizen use of the Small Claims Court for nuisance abatement is not what troubles him about the Oregon Street situation. Anthony says he is more concerned about state law that blacklists a property once any amount of drugs is associated with it. 

“You find one joint or one baggie on the premises and bang!—it’s tied to the whole property,” he said. 

Anthony, who used to work as an attorney for the City of Oakland, said he left the city after suing a 94-year-old North Oakland grandmother in a similar drug nuisance case. 

He now belongs to Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (, a nationally based organization made up of current and former members of law enforcement who support drug regulation rather than the current drug-banning laws. 

“We’re now seeing the vicious, dirty underbelly of the war on drugs,” Anthony said by telephone. “After throwing a teenager in jail for drug possession, we’re now going after the house of the grandmother where the teenager lived. Those laws are very problematic.”