Drug Raids, Lawsuits Plague Berkeley House

Photo: The house at 1610 Oregon Street has been the subject of numerous complaints from neighbors. One neighbor recently filed a complaint over the city's handling of the house.
Tollef Biggs/Photo
The house at 1610 Oregon Street has been the subject of numerous complaints from neighbors. One neighbor recently filed a complaint over the city's handling of the house.

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After watching a crack cocaine sale outside a liquor store last month, Berkeley police trailed the suspected seller to a notorious house that has been the target of two lawsuits by more than 30 neighbors, the site of several police raids and is now part of a grand jury investigation.

Inside 1610 Oregon St., police arrested the man, a relative of the owner of the house, after finding seven crack rocks on him, police said. A subsequent search of the home produced no other illegal drugs or weapons.

The incident comes in the midst of a Civil Grand Jury investigation into whether the City of Berkeley has adequately dealt with suspected drug houses in the area.

A neighbor filed a complaint saying the city has been "derelict in its duty" to use state law to shut down drug houses. Neighbors have been forced to sue homeowners in small claims court, the complaint stated.

The Civil Grand Jury looks into reports of corruption and negligence in local government agencies. Grand jury testimony is kept secret.

"(Grand jurors) asked us to provide information, which we did," said Acting City Attorney Zach Cowan. "We sent them some process stuff about how we deal with nuisance properties."

Cowan also provided police statistics and city crime reports, but he did not send information about specific addresses. He would not discuss whether the city is currently considering legal action against any homeowners related to nuisance drug activity.

Assistant City Manager Jim Hynes said grand jurors asked his office for information last month but have not contacted the city manager's office since.

City officials said it is extremely difficult to force out homeowners.

Whereas several commercial businesses have been declared nuisances and shut down, there is a "much higher critical mass" for the city to board up a private home, Hynes said.

Hynes said the city has other tools to stop drug dealing. Declaring properties "drug houses" can lead to costly fines if owners do not crack down on the drug dealing, he said.

Several residents have filed suits in small claims court with the intent of pressuring the owners of houses they say are nuisances into moving away.

In 1992, 31 neighbors sued Lenora Moore, 78, the longtime owner of the house on 1610 Oregon St., claiming that Moore ignored drug dealing in and around the house by her family and their associates.

Moore denied any knowledge of drug dealing out of her home and said police and prosecutors had not adequately addressed the problem, according to court documents.

A judge awarded the plaintiffs a total of $155,000 and the case held up against appeal in 1994. However, the plaintiffs were never paid because Moore declared bankruptcy.

In 2005, 14 residents filed another suit hoping to pressure Moore into selling the house to someone outside her family. Again, neighbors testified to being scared to go outside their homes or eat dinner near windows in fear of errant gunshots.

"My 2-year-old daughter found a dirty, used hypodermic needle while we were working in the yard. She picked it up and asked me what it was," neighbor Paul Rauber testified in 2005, according to court papers. "This is intolerable. No one should have to live like this."

Eight months later, a judge again ruled in the neighbors' favor, writing in his decision that they had painted a "chilling and gut-wrenching picture of life near a drug house." Each plaintiff was awarded $5,000.

Moore did not return calls for comment.

Hynes said that no evidence from before the 2006 ruling can be used against Moore in future court cases.

Since 2006, there have been four criminal incidents near the house, of which two were drug-related, he said.

The grand jury will issue its report in July. While none of its recommendations are binding, the city is expected to respond to them.


Kevin Leahy covers the courts. Contact him at [email protected]

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