Archive for the ‘Law Enforcement and Codes’ Category

German architect sentenced to jail after firefighter dies

January 18th, 2014 No comments

Criminal prosecutions are rare in the field of building code enforcement but when there is a high profile death that results from shoddy construction, indictments do happen.  Recently in Los Angeles, A German architect/contractor was charged with involuntary manslaughter in the death of a firefighter. The architect designed his own mansion and told the building department he wasn’t going to include any fireplaces in the 12,000 square foot structure.  But, then he changed his mind:

Days after Becker was permitted to move in, a fire awoke him and his girlfriend at night. After the fire, authorities determined that Becker built long, natural-gas fire pits meant for outdoor use into the interior of his home. He’s accused of gross negligence for building the frame of the fireplaces with combustible materials, instead of materials such as brick, and for not building any firebreaks inside the walls.

The judge ultimately gave the architect 1 year in jail of which he will serve about 6 months.  This is not unusual as defendants usually get credit for good behavior while in jail.  Firefighters were angry the defendant didn’t receive a maximum 4 year sentence but the judge said  he was concerned that “responsibility for the fire could be shared, because safety inspectors had failed to find the illegally installed fireplaces.” However, evidence showed that he made these changes after the final inspection and even disconnected sprinklers.
I have often found that judges know very little about how the inspection process works.  Code officials know that they have little control over owners once the certificate of occupancy is issued.  Too many owners create dangerous conditions because they don’t want to spend the necessary money to do things right.

Code enforcement and cannabis

November 6th, 2012 No comments

Santa Barbara is a wonderful place for a code training.  I was lucky enough to be invited by the California County Building Offiicials Association to teach Legal Aspects of Code Administration on September 24th.  I really enjoy traveling around the country because I learn so much.  One of the big problems the building officials are facing in California are houses used for growing marijuana.  There are a lot of mom and pop operations because of California’s approach to medical marijuana.  Some unscrupulous individuals rent vacant houses, never letting on that they are not going to live in the house, and then fill it with plants.  The electrical system is compromised with all of the power needed for such an operation and the owner is left with a big mess when the perpetrator moves on or is arrested.  I wonder if anyone has ever used the zoning ordinances to prosecute anyone for illegal home occupation?

Minnesota appeals court upholds rental inspection ordinance

June 21st, 2012 No comments

A very important decision has just come down from the Court of Appeals of Minnesota involving the constitutionality of rental inspections.  The case is McCaughtry v. City of Red Wing, 2012 WL 2077191, 2012. Landlords and tenants challenged the rental property inspection ordinance of the City of Red Wing which allowed inspections of property even if there was no evidence of a violation as long as inspectors obtained an administrative search warrant.  The court said that:

Appellants have not established that the RDLC is unconstitutional on its face under the Minnesota Constitution on the ground that it permits the issuance of administrative search warrants by a judicial officer, without an individualized showing of suspicion that particular code violations exist in the rental dwelling to be inspected.

This case is significant given that rental inspections are crucial in fighting blight and crime.  The landlords and tenants intend to appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court so there may be further developments regarding this. It’s even possible this could go all the way to the United States Supreme Court.

Inspector faces manslaughter trial

October 4th, 2011 1 comment

A former inspector for Aspen, CO faces criminal negligent homicide charges for the death of a family due to carbon monoxide poisoning.  A pipe from the boiler used to melt driveway snow was disconnected allowing carbon monoxide to enter the residence. The inspector had signed off on the work.  The city of Aspen, ICC, the county and the Colorado Municipal League have called for a dismissal of the charges.  The inspector is asking that the charges be dismissed due to the immunity granted to public employees by state law.  This is the first time I’ve come across such a case.  It is quite troubling and contrary to most of the caselaw in this country that discusses the public duty doctrine which states that inspectors owe a duty to the general public but not specific individuals in most cases.  This is a good example of how a tragedy can lead to some questionable law enforcement decisions. I would have a different viewpoint if the case involved bribery or some other type of unlawful behavior but there is nothing like that in this case.  I have seen many cases where there has been negligence by building inspectors but have never even considered that the proper remedy would be criminal prosecution.

Homeowner forecloses on Bank of America

June 6th, 2011 1 comment

This story is too delightful not to post.  Bank of America filed a foreclosure lawsuit against a homeowner despite the fact that the homeowner bought his house in cash and had no mortgage.  The lawsuit was dismissed but Bank of America was ordered to pay his legal fees. After waiting awhile for the check, the homeowner decided to use one of the remedies available to creditors, having the Sheriff seize the debtor’s property.  The Sheriff went to a local office of Bank of America in Naples, Florida to seize furniture, etc. but the bank manager managed to come up with the money owed the homeowner.  You can find the story at

Reflections on Midwest tour

May 15th, 2011 No comments

I recently completed a 2 month period of travel all over the Midwest doing trainings for building officials, fire inspectors, property maintenance and housing inspectors and law enforcement officers in Columbus, Ohio, East Liberty, Iowa, South Bend, Indiana, Troy, Michigan, East Peoria, IL and Sheboygan, Wisconsin.  All of them are facing challenges because of the foreclosure crisis and are trying to respond with reduced resources.  I want to say how much I appreciate the hospitality I received wherever I went and the enthusiasm of the participants.  It gives me great hope when I see the number of inspectors who take the time to come to the classes I teach so they can enhance their skills and keep trying to improve their communities.  At a time when so many public employees are feeling unappreciated and under attack, I just wanted to extend my thanks to everyone who made my trainings a rewarding experience.

Guess who was a code violator?

May 7th, 2011 2 comments

The New York Post is reporting that the compound built in Pakistan that housed Osama Bin Laden deviated from the building plans on file.  It was supposed to be a 2 story building but ended up with 3.  An extra building not on the plans also was constructed.  The Post says Bin Laden never paid property taxes.  It also reported that:

The oversights were no surprise to locals, who say Abbottabad’s building inspectors never bother to check whether homes are built in line with their building permits.

I keep saying that strict code enforcement can aid law enforcement.  You just never know what you’ll find when you pursue these cases.

Los Angeles inspectors charged with accepting bribes

April 25th, 2011 2 comments

It’s always sad to read about building inspectors who get caught up in the criminal justice system because they commit criminal acts.  Los Angeles has a scandal going on because 2 building inspectors were arrested on suspicion of accepting bribes. The Los Angeles Times reports that 2 inspectors accepted $9,000 and $6,000 each from an undercover informant.  The informant said that in some cases payment was the only way to avoid delays and to pass inspections.  According to court documents, inspectors never even looked at the properties many times. More developments are expected because the informant said that the corruption was systemic.

When an inspector accepts a bribe, it raises the issue as to whether these properties contain dangerous conditions due to this type of corruption.  Unfortunately, honest inspectors suffer a loss of respect in the eyes of the public due to this criminal activity.

Firefighters discover marijuana in building on fire

April 22nd, 2011 No comments

It’s not unusual for one agency to stumble upon evidence that would interest another department in the local jurisdiction.  Firefighters in Columbia, Pennsylvania recently found a marijuana growing operation when they responded to a fire.  Police investigated and found plants growing and bags of weed.  The police have to be careful before they enter a building though.  Unless it’s an emergency (and the destruction of drugs is not usually considered to be one), the police cannot enter a building without consent from the owner or occupant or without a search warrant.  Just because an inspector has a right to be on the premises, doesn’t mean personnel from another agency can join him or her.   The information uncovered by an inspector can be communicated to the police and used as the basis for a criminal search warrant.

Indianapolis targets negligent landlords

January 18th, 2011 No comments

Large cities need to be strategic in how they use limited resources to target distressed properties. The IndyStar reports that Indianapolis has decided to concentrate its efforts by filing lawsuits against landlords who own multiple properties with high crime rates. The Fire Department said there were 90 arson fires in vacant buildings last year many set by homeless people seeking to keep warm. The local prosecutor handling the cases said that:

….. the city cross-referenced building code violations with high crime rates to prioritize which buildings and landlords to sue. Officials said rundown and unkempt buildings encourage crime.

This is a smart strategy and is most likely to lead to a decrease in crime. It’s one of the points I discuss at length when I teach my course on How Code Enforcement Effects Police Operations.

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