No drug homes seized in first year of Duggan program

George Hunter and Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Nearly a year after Mayor Mike Duggan announced a plan to seize problem drug houses and turn them over to the city's land bank, not a single property has been confiscated.

Beginning last July, homes raided twice for drugs would be slated for seizure by city officials. There have been 339 properties raided under the program, 19 of which were targeted a second time.

None has been turned over to the Detroit Land Bank Authority, although the city has reached consent agreements with the owners of three of the properties. Owners have been ordered to keep the sites drug-free, or they'll be seized.

City officials said the other cases are tied up in court after the city filed suit against the property owners. Land Bank spokesman Craig Fahle did not provide specifics on each pending case, telling The Detroit News only that they are "not resolved yet" and are subject to hearings and motions.

Duggan, who implemented a similar civil forfeiture effort when he served as Wayne County prosecutor from 2000-03, said he isn't concerned about the lack of properties being confiscated.

"The small number of cases brought is an indication the program is working," he said.

The Detroit Land Bank sends notices to homeowners by certified mail informing them about the threat of seizure after a second raid. In addition to the initial 339 properties, the plan called for notices to be sent to the owners of any other houses where drugs were found during raids.

Seized homes will be sold and buyers expected to move in within six months.

There are an estimated 10,000 drug houses in Detroit and the city gets an average of 4,000 complaints about drug houses to the 224-DOPE hotline annually.

Problems in the now-disbanded Detroit Police Narcotics Section have contributed to the lack of seizures, Duggan said.

"It's a function of the number of raids police conduct," he said. "The drug unit has gone through a transition, and they were dealing with the federal investigation."

Detroit Police Chief James Craig in July disbanded the Narcotics Section amid an Internal Affairs investigation into widespread problems in the unit that include allegations of misplaced drugs and evidence.

In addition to the internal investigation, the FBI has headed its own probe into alleged corruption in the drug unit. In April, Lt. David Hansberry and Officer Bryan Watson were charged in federal court. According to the indictment, Hansberry and Watson allegedly raided drug houses and sometimes sold the drugs, sometimes through informants, and split the money found during raids.

Amid the dual investigations, Craig disbanded the drug unit and replaced it with the Major Violators Section, moving many longtime drug officers to new posts in the process.

In the months after the change, drug raids plummeted. By September, the number of raids had dropped to about half of the previous year's total, with similar drops in the number of drugs and weapons confiscated during raids, according to internal police documents obtained by The News.

But the raids have since picked up significantly, department spokeswoman June West said.

"So far this year, they're doing about 25 drug raids a week," West said. "That's three or four every day."

Michael Johnson, 47, a resident of the city's east side, who called The News two years ago to complain about drugs in his neighborhood, said things have gotten better in recent months.

"I do see a difference," he said. "From what I can see, they're doing more raids on these drug houses. It's not as bad as it was, but it's still a problem. The police can't be everywhere; they can only do so much."

Fahle said that under the seizure program, the Land Bank has sent out warnings to every house raided, warning that if drugs were found again on the property the house would be seized.

"For the most part, we haven't busted the same houses twice," Fahle said. "That's why they (the houses) haven't come to us.

"If in some way that is a deterrent and we stop the drug activity in these houses, great. We don't necessarily want them; we want to abate the nuisance. That's the key."

Civil nuisance abatement law allows properties deemed nuisances to be seized. The property owner must go to court and prove otherwise. Civil forfeitures leave the burden of proof up to the accused.

Under the Land Bank seizure program, if drugs are found during a second raid, the city will file a lawsuit declaring the property a nuisance. The owner will have 21 days to file a response. If there is no response, a hearing with a judge will be scheduled. If the judge agrees the property is a nuisance, the owner will have 21 days to appeal the ruling.

After a judge rules the property a nuisance and transfers ownership to the city, the houses will be put up for sale on Winning bidders will have six months to produce a certificate of occupancy and have someone living in the home; otherwise, the city will keep the money and retake the house, Duggan said.

Duggan said he was optimistic about the program, even if no properties have yet been seized.

"This is just one tool," he said. "If police bust a drug house and it keeps reopening, that's demoralizing to the police and the community. But if landlords think they're going to lose their property, they tend to take action. So if the first raid solves the problem, then it's a success. I hope (the number of houses seized) stays small."

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