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Sunday, Nov 23, 2014
Crime & Courts

Court just for code violators

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TAMPA — Greg Abat has been restoring a 1989 BMW in his carport. The car isn’t road-worthy yet, so he never bothered registering it.

Then the city code enforcement officer arrived.

He ticketed Abat, a recent transplant from Dunedin, for storing an inoperable vehicle on his property on North 21st Street.

“It was perfectly permissible in Dunedin to keep a car without tags on a carport,” Abat said.

He was among more than 74 people called Thursday to explain themselves to Judge Richard Weis. Weis, normally a criminal court judge in the Hillsborough Circuit Court, oversees one of two monthly court dockets created in the fall in hopes of getting more people to heed city ordinances.

Weis runs this civil docket, handing out fines but not jail time.

For most people, it takes only one appearance before Weis to make an impression.

“Historically, there have been relatively few ‘repeat offenders’ on the civil municipal code enforcement docket,” Weis said in an email.

On Thursday, he faced a room filled with people ticketed for letting their yards become overgrown, accumulating too much junk on the properties or running their sprinklers on the wrong day. A few, like Abat, were cited for their cars.

More than a few were the owners of foreclosed or abandoned houses that have gone to seed.

Michael Schmid, the city’s prosecutor, said the folks in Weis’s court make up about 7 percent of all the people who get cited for breaking city ordinances. The vast majority — 85 percent, the Tampa City Council was told last week by Neighborhood Empowerment Director Jake Slater — fix their problems after getting a warning from the city. Those cases never make it to court.

“I’m pretty happy with that,” Slater told council members.

The city has issued more than 21,400 warnings for code violations since then-Mayor Pam Iorio began that process in 2008. Citations send offenders through the court system.

Until fall, people who got code citations were mixed in with other criminal and civil dockets. The new city code dockets were created to consolidate them and streamline the steps to resolve the problems that created them.

Schmid said the courts work best for violations that are easy to fix, such as mowing overgrown grass.

“It should be something you can fix in a day,” Schmid said. “We give you 21 days to mow your grass. If you can’t get that done in 21 days, you get a citation for that.”

About a quarter of the 117 citations in front of Weis on Thursday were for overgrown yards.

At the top of the proceedings, Weis laid things out for his audience. The point of the proceedings was to get them to comply with city rules, not to punish them. They had two choices: Either admit the charge or contest it.

To get people to admit the charge and speed things along, he dangled a carrot: He would reduce the $75 fine — $100 for sprinkling violations — on a first or second offense or even given them more time to fix the problem. Either way, things would be over quickly, and everyone could go back to their lives.

For those who wanted to fight, Weis convened a hearing on the spot.

About 15 white-shirted code enforcement officers sat together, ready for Schmid to call them to testify. Civil code court is the only part of the code enforcement process where people can get a same-day hearing, Schmid said.

Weis made it clear to those who wanted to fight that they were on their own. If they didn’t bring an attorney — at the Thursday session no one did — he couldn’t help them against the city’s attorneys.

“If the scales go back and forth and end up even, tie goes to the runner and I’ll rule in your favor,” Weis told everyone.

Abat stepped to the podium facing the judge, admitted his code violation and walked out about $70 lighter.

Landlord Barry Cohen, on the other hand, was one of seven people who decided to fight City Hall on Thursday.

Cohen protested the ticket he got for overgrown grass at rental property he owns in Ybor City. He came to court with his tenant, William Cashman, ready to argue his side.

For 20 minutes, Cohen insisted he didn’t deserve the ticket. The city had mistreated him while he was caring for his sick girlfriend, he said. The code enforcement officer was on vacation on the date the ticket was written, he said.

In the past, it was always possible to meet inspectors at the location and resolve the violation before it got to court, Cohen argued. Nobody told him the rules had changed, he said.

Cohen’s decision to fight seemed to take Weis back a bit.

“I assumed, perhaps erroneously, that you were coming to admit it and I had made a decision in my mind to reduce your fine by about two-thirds,” Weis said.

Eventually Cohen stopped arguing and agreed to pay the $25 fine — reduced from the original $75 — plus $55 in court costs.

“See the clerk,” Weis said.

kwiatrowski@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7871

Twitter: @kwiatrowskiTBO

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