Editorial: No excuse for leaving renters on the street

Editorial Board • Jun 15, 2020 at 9:00 PM

Two years ago, Chattanooga officials showed up at a local motel, ordered everyone out and boarded it up at the order of a judge, the result of some 800 emergency calls over two years. Among others, the judge’s order left 12 college students with no place to go.

You may wonder, how is it that officials can throw people out into the street without notice? It’s a part of state code called the abatement of nuisance law, which provides for the seizure and forfeiture of personal property to cease activities that create a nuisance. But the law is vague. It defines a “nuisance” as any place in or upon which violations of law occur, but it does not define a threshold for shuttering private property without notice. How many violations? Over what time period?

As well, there’s a fine line between these laws and the U.S. Constitution’s due process clause, which guarantees that “no person shall ... be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Legal precedents establish the general rule that individuals must receive notice and an opportunity to be heard before the government deprives them of property.

But there was no notice in Church Hill recently when the police department, acting on a petition for abatement of nuisance filed by 3rd Judicial District Attorney General Dan Armstrong and signed by Circuit Judge Thomas Wright, shut down the Church Hill Inn.

Police evicted owners Kalpeshkumar Patel and Pinalben Patel, who lived at the inn, as well as guests occupying 20 rooms. All were evicted without warning. During the eviction process, four of the guests were arrested on outstanding warrants: one for being a fugitive from justice in Virginia on felony drug trafficking charges; one for violation of community corrections; one for a Sullivan County arrest warrant on drug charges; and one for a probation violation.

“Law enforcement has continually said it’s just a haven for criminal activity, so that’s why we decided to take action,” said Armstrong.

But most of the guests were guilty of no crime. They were ordered to pack up and vacate in the middle of a pandemic.

Church Hill Police Chief Chad Mosley said the order was the result of an ongoing investigation alleging that the motel poses a substantial risk to the community because of some 50 arrests there since 2015, about one per month.

The Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department used the law to close a motel in January because of 244 calls for service over a two-and-a-half-year period, about eight per month. The run-down motel has 60 rooms, but according to District Attorney Ken Baldwin, “only 10 were fit to be used” and “we only had six or seven residents there at the time of closure.”

But those residents weren’t left at the side of the road with their possessions. Said Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley, “We made sure they had a place to go.”

Several years ago in acting against a nearby tavern, Kingsport officials cited 2,127 calls at a city motel over a five-year period, or 35 a month. No action was taken against it under the abatement of nuisance law.

According to the University of Tennessee County Technical Assistance Service, issues with the law could involve challenges of taking property without just compensation or failure to provide due process. “If the regulation is so burdensome on a property owner that the owner can no longer get use, enjoyment, or value out of the property, a court may find that the regulation effectively ‘took’ the value of the property from the owner without providing compensation. In that case, the regulation may be struck down.”

There should be an alternative to boarding up a motel without notice and leaving people in the street. That should include a notice provided of a potential nuisance, and in the case of a motel, where renters are made aware that such a process is underway that may result in the motel being closed.

But the process and notice should be a short leash. Owners of these properties know the issues.

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