Civil cases are new tool in fight for safe streets 

San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera has unholstered a powerful new weapon to help crime-besieged neighborhoods rid themselves of blatant lawbreaking. Two Tenderloin markets were targeted with civil lawsuits this week on allegations of openly providing a “safe haven” for drug dealers — permitting and actually helping set up sales of heroin, oxycodone and crack cocaine, and knowingly buying stolen goods for resale.

Although these are not criminal lawsuits, the cases have the potential to put the stores out of business. There is also the potential of court orders to shut them down for one year, multiple fines and penalties, and return of all illegal profits. Barah’s Market and Razan Deli are being charged with multiple violations of the California Drug Abatement Act, Unfair Competition Law, and other state and local statutes.

The two grocery locations — on Leavenworth Street and Ellis Street — triggered no less than 182 calls to police in 2011 about rampant drug sales and other illegal activity. The paired lawsuits at the San Francisco Superior Court are the product of more than a year of undercover sting operations at both stores.

As would be expected, market workers insisted to this newspaper their shops had no part in what they admitted was a substantial neighborhood drug-dealing problem. But some of the mind-boggling sting reports filed with the lawsuits include counter clerks allegedly arranging drug sales to undercover police both inside and directly in front of the markets, selling crack pipes and buying supposedly stolen products that were actually donated to the police by Walgreens.

Herrera and police Chief Greg Suhr announced the lawsuits Monday at a Tenderloin street corner news conference across from Barah’s. Both officials praised each other’s departments for effectively working together on a somewhat experimental crime abatement strategy.

Under California law, it seems reasonable that in certain cases of repeated crime-supportive behavior, civil punishments could provide more powerful enforcement tools — such as court-ordered business closures and multiple financial penalties — than the relatively minor criminal charges available to the District Attorney’s Office. The only reason this strategy is not used more often seems to be that city attorneys are overwhelmingly habituated to working on civil disputes, not purely criminal matters.

These new Tenderloin “drug haven” lawsuits follow in the experimental tradition of Herrera’s “gang injunction” wins. The injunctions measurably improved safety in dangerous neighborhoods by imposing strict penalties for street loitering by groups of known gang members at notorious gathering spots.

Just stopping the alleged drug-dealing assistance at the two markets being sued could significantly reduce the prevalence of street narcotics in the Tenderloin. According to Suhr, 99 percent of Tenderloin businesses run law-abiding operations and are quick to report any observed criminal activity.

San Francisco is fortunate to have Herrera and Suhr working together to develop out-of-the-envelope strategies for attacking The City’s worst crime hot spots. We are hopeful this civil-criminal law enforcement team will continue delivering new approaches to enhance public safety.

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