Several members of the Los Angeles City Council expressed frustration Wednesday that the City Attorney's Office is not pursuing civil penalties against landlords whose properties are the site of illegal pot shops.
The comments came before the council approved a set of actions aimed at cracking down on illegal shops, including the formation of a working group comprised of the Los Angeles Police Department, the Los Angeles Fire Department and other city departments to manage and direct enforcement efforts.
Members of the police department and City Attorney's Office spoke told the council that to date, 22 illegal shops have had their utilities shut off; the city is in the process of sending out cease-and-desist letters to many shops; and 216 criminal cases are being pursued against 861 defendants associated with 182 locations.
Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson pointed out that the city has the ability to pursue a $20,000 penalty -- which could be applied for each day of a violation -- against landlords.
"This will be now my fourth time in a public meeting asking the exact same question. How many times have we pursued the civil penalty against landowners?" he said. "So there are 182 locations where people are getting
arrested, theoretically, and charged with misdemeanors, the same way we used to do when we had the war on drugs -- find somebody with drugs in the alley, we arrest them, we go on. So you just identified 182 locations. Did we pursue a civil penalty against the landlord in any of those cases?"
In a lengthy response, David Michaelson with the City Attorney's Office said 329 landlords are among those facing criminal charges. He also said the pursuit of civil nuisance cases can take years to prosecute and "you never really know what the judges will do with them."
Harris-Dawson, sounding frustrated, said Michaelson did not actually answer his question, and was ultimately told that none of the landlords of the 182 locations were being pursued for civil penalties.
"It's true that it could take years and I believe that you are right on point when you predict what the judges will likely do and how they will handle it. That's your space and I believe that you know it," Harris-Dawson said. "Here's the thing. You don't know how someone will respond just at the threat of it. So just a letter saying we're taking you to court and you could get fined $20,000 a day, I can tell you, a lot of mom-and-pop property owners in my part of town, that's enough. They're done."
Michaelson responded that the office may be pursuing some civil penalties soon.
The problem of illegal pot shops has been a frequent topic of discussion among city leaders over the last few months, and the council recently gave the green light to shutting off utilities.
Huge increases should be included in the next city budget for enforcement of illegal pot shops, Mayor Eric Garcetti said recently.
Since the beginning of 2018, all businesses conducting commercial cannabis activity in Los Angeles are required to be licensed by both the state and city, but hundreds without the proper licenses are believed to be operating, according to the LAPD.
"I think the individuals that are on the front line, those are the small players here. There are far more egregious violations that are happening and we need to be vigilant in making sure that we are going after the individuals that continue to create this type of nuisance in our community," Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez said.
Councilman Paul Krekorian wondered if the city could pursue liens against commercial property owners in the same way it does for an illegal fence, improper signage or some other violation.
"It's absolutely, easily enforceable whenever they sell that property," he said. "Is there some way that these offenses, which are much more egregious than most building and safety violations, cannot be enforced in an administrative way in the same way and then we take advantage of the lien procedure?"
Michaelson said that it was an idea that could be examined.