RAVE: Protective Or Draconian Law?

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Under the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation statute, a business owner or property owner does not have to be involved in drug manufacture or distribution to be charged. The National Drug Policy Alliance, an organization that is critical of the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation law, said that a property or business owner can be actively working with law enforcement to eliminate offenses and still be fined, arrested and have their property seized

Across the nation, property and business owners are questioning the fairness of an Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation statute which enables the federal government and law enforcement to seize property that is deemed a nuisance in the community. Based upon the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act, often referred to as the “RAVE or Crack House Law,â€? prosecutors can charge, convict and imprison property owners, business owners and managers who fail to prevent drug-related offenses committed by customers, employees, tenants and other persons who live on, visit or frequent their property or place of business. 

The Controlled Substance Act prohibits an individual from opening, maintaining, managing, renting, leasing or profiting from any business or residence that “knowinglyâ€? manufactures, distributes or allows the use of a controlled substance on his or her property.  In June 2005, Henry “Woodyâ€? Keen, 63 of 5101 Broad Street in Garfield, a working class neighborhood in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, was convicted in U.S. District Court for allowing his private residence to be used for the distribution and use of a controlled substance. Keen’s arrest and subsequent conviction came after repeated written warnings, from the U.S. District Attorney’s office, were ignored. The corner of Broad where Keen lived had been the focus of numerous complaints from parents who were concerned for the safety of their children walking to and from school as well as residents returning from work in the evenings.

Contractors working on new housing near Broad Street threatened to stop work if something wasn’t done about the shootouts. In 2004, a gun battle between two individuals forced employees of Arrow Concrete Company to take cover in the pit of the foundation of a house under construction.

Witnesses reported seeing two men firing handguns at each other at three o’clock in the afternoon. According to witnesses, one person standing at Broad and North Winebiddle fired a handgun at a person approximately a block away. A delivery driver working for Arrow Concrete Company, who was at the job site, confirmed seeing two men firing wildly at each other, one from the street, and the other from a house. In later interviews with jobsite workers, it was determined that the house in question was 5101 Broad Street.  Keen is the first homeowner in Western Pennsylvania to be indicted and convicted under the “Crack House Lawâ€?. 

Bloomfield/Garfield Neighborhood Development Corporation, (BGC) has taken possession of the seized property. The BGC plans to demolish the property and use the vacant lot for new housing. While many residents in Garfield applaud the actions taken by U.S. District Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan, there are those who wonder if the law will be used to unfairly target people of color who own homes in neighborhoods that are undergoing revitalization or to penalize business owners who are unable to control patrons who commit drug and gun-related offenses inside or outside their establishment.

Tenants who live in apartment buildings that are identified as “nuisance properties� also worry that they will be removed from the building along with those who are breaking the law. Walter Shaahid, Democratic Committee Person in Pittsburgh’s 10th Ward, 18th District, said that he supports efforts to eliminate crime in his community. “I highly commend the vigilance of the residents, the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp. and law enforcement for making Garfield a safer and better place to live.

However, I do have concerns about how this law will affect innocent tenants, business owners and property owners,� he says. Under the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation statute, a business owner or property owner does not have to be involved in drug manufacture or distribution to be charged. The National Drug Policy Alliance, an organization that is critical of the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation law, said that a property or business owner can be actively working with law enforcement to eliminate offenses and still be fined, arrested and have their property seized. Bill Piper, Director of National Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, believes the law puts property owners in a difficult position.

“This law really puts property owners between a rock and a hard place. If they call the police because they suspect drug dealing is happening on their property, the local government could seize their property as a public nuisance. On the other hand, if they say nothing they could be prosecuted,� Piper notes. In the case of Henry Keen, Commander William T. Valenta, Jr. of the Pittsburgh Police Narcotics and Vice Division, said that the homeowner was personally informed of the fact that his property was being used as a source of drugs and guns and that Keen was offered an opportunity to come into the office of the U.S. District Attorney to discuss options to assist him. According to Commander Valenta, Keen declined to attend the meeting.

To build their case, the Narcotics Division looked at all addresses where there were narcotics arrests in the City of Pittsburgh over the past two years.  5101 Broad Street was near the top of the list as far as the number of arrests and other incidents. The Narcotics and Vice Division targeted property owners that either resided in homes, or rented to individuals, who they believed, used the property for narcotics trafficking. When asked how landlords could avoid situations that could jeopardize their property,  Commander Valenta advised owners and managers to properly screen their tenants and have stringent leases that stipulate automatic eviction for any criminal activity.

Federal law requires that warnings be issued by the U. S. Attorney's office to property owners or tenants before any action is taken. The Narcotics Division identified over 30 different sites in Pittsburgh that are believed to be nuisance properties. In almost all of the cases, Commander Valenta said that a meeting with the property owner resulted in appropriate action being taken, the issues resolved and criminal charges avoided. Rick Swartz, Executive Director of the Bloomfield Garfield Corporation, said that although the property at 5101 Broad is no longer an issue, there remain safety concerns in the 5100 block of Broad. “If other property owners, either there or elsewhere in the neighborhood, are found to be permitting similar kinds of illegal acts as occurred in and around 5101 Broad, the ‘Crack House Statute’, as it's called, could be invoked by the federal authorities against them as well,� he says.

Swartz went on to say that his office has been informed that there is now a second property owner on Broad Street who is facing trial in Common Pleas Court on weapons and drug trafficking charges. “If he's convicted, we will push to see his property confiscated as well.â€? The Nuisance Law can also be invoked to close establishments that sell alcohol if law enforcement is repeatedly called to a place of business.  In the East End of Pittsburgh, bars such as the Horoscope Lounge in Garfield and J&K’s Place in Lawrenceville, stand to have their licenses revoked by the Liquor Control Board because the owner or manager has been unable to prevent disturbances, drug distribution and criminal activity committed by patrons.

In May, bar patron Aaron Alston, of Garfield and bartender Janice Kemp, both died as a result of a shootout at J&K’s Place. In June, a man was shot in the chest inside the Horoscope Lounge. The Drug Policy Alliance, which has offices in Washington DC, New York, and California, believes the law violates the cornerstone of a free society. “The government can’t even keep drugs out of its schools and prisons, yet it is arresting innocent business owners who cannot stop drug offenses on their property. It’s outrageous,� adds Piper. While many believe the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation law should be used in situations where a business establishment or personal residence is clearly causing disturbances in the community, Piper says the law can also be used to stifle freedom of expression.

In Montana, federal agents used the law to shut down a benefit to raise money for Students for Sensible Drug Policy. In May of 2003, an agent of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) told managers of the Eagle Lodge in Billings, Montana that the Lodge could be fined $250,000 under the RAVE Act, if anyone smoked marijuana during a concert to raise money for a campaign to change Montana’s medical marijuana law. The event was canceled upon the advice of legal counsel.

“One has to question the federal government’s priorities,� says Piper. “Instead of going after major drug traffickers, they’re arresting landlords and bar owners? Why, is a U.S. District Attorney worried about a private residence that has become a public nuisance? Aren’t there bigger fish to fry?� The RAVE Act was passed into law as an attachment to the AMBER Alert bill by President Bush in 2003. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, it passed both the House and the Senate despite the fact that there had been no public hearings or debate.

Tim Vining, Executive Director of the Thomas Merton Center for Peace and Justice, which is located in Garfield, said that community members must remain vigilant when it comes to the equitable application of laws intended to provide aid to urban communities. “History reveals that granting too much discretion to law enforcement only widens the door for discrimination based on race,â€? he maintains. “Are similar actions being taken against the venues of white collar corporate crime?  Once this happens, there will be some evidence that federal agents are concerned about equity. Until then, I have serious reservations with this law.â€?

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