Washington, D.C., Young Attorneys Help Battle Community Drug Problems
By Alexander P. Ryan
Alexander P. Ryan is an assistant editor of The Affiliate and practices with the Groom Law Group in Washington, D.C.
No matter where we live, each of us knows that drug use can cause problems in our communities. Rampant drug abuse can lead to the formation of crack houses, open-air drug markets, and neighborhood drug hubs. These, in turn, generate associated crimes, such as robberies, gang violence, homicides, and others. Although most of us are generally aware of these problems, we often feel powerless to do anything about them.
The Bar Association of the District of Columbia Young Lawyers Section (BADC YLS) has taken a serious look at these issues. In response, the BADC YLS has created “Operation Crackdown,” a program designed to help community groups battle drug problems and end neighborhood drug trafficking. Using young attorney volunteers, Operation Crackdown is a cooperative program between the YLS and groups of residents of the District of Columbia.
Operation Crackdown started in 1994 and provides free legal representation to community groups, such as neighborhood civic organizations and tenants’ rights groups, in an effort to counter drug-related issues. The success of the program depends in large part on the efforts of YLS attorneys, who agree to volunteer a portion of their time to the program. The Operation Crackdown attorneys then use the civil courts, and various city agencies, to force owners of the drug-saddled properties to put an end to drug use, drug sales, and drug manufacturing occurring on those properties.
With the help of Operation Crackdown, community groups receive assistance in obtaining court orders that require negligent property owners to evict problem tenants, install outdoor lighting in dark alleys and vacant lots, reduce criminal activity, hire security, and take other steps to eliminate the use, sale, or manufacture of illegal drugs on their properties. “The volunteer lawyers use the District’s nuisance laws, including the Drug Related Nuisance Abatement Emergency Act of 1998, to address the problems created by drug properties,” says Randall Warden, the new Chair of the Operation Crackdown Steering Committee and an attorney with Vinson & Elkins in Washington, D.C. In addition, Operation Crackdown attorneys can seek the assistance of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board to review and revoke the business licenses of restaurants, bars, lounges, and liquor stores where drugs are sold.
The Operation Crackdown process begins with training for attorneys who have agreed to volunteer their time. The program solicits referrals from neighborhood residents about drug-related problems in their areas. Generally, the program requires that an existing community group be willing to serve as the point of contact for the target matter. Members of Operation Crackdown then review the referrals and, if accepted, pair the sponsoring community groups with a program attorney, who provides the legal representation necessary to pursue the matter.
Typically, the Operation Crackdown attorney begins his or her representation by speaking with the residents of the community in which the problem is occurring. Initially, the attorney will try to get a sense of the extent of the problem, what evidence, if any, is available concerning the problem, and whether the community group wishes to avail itself of legal remedies in an attempt to counter the problem.
After an Operation Crackdown attorney makes an initial assessment of a particular case file, he or she may determine that there is more than one way to proceed. Depending on the particulars of the situation, the Operation Crackdown attorney may simply recommend that community members monitor the property to see if the problems improve. Or, the attorney may recommend that a warning letter be sent to the owner of the subject property that requests the owner to take steps to end the problem.
Sometimes, these preliminary measures are not enough to alleviate the problem, however. In those circumstances, the Operation Crackdown attorney may recommend that the community group pursue resolution through litigation or, when appropriate, through an Alcoholic Beverage Control Board proceeding. In these instances, the attorney assists neighborhood residents to maintain records of observed drug activity at the property sites and coordinate with police and other agencies to gather evidence, prepare and file appropriate court or agency paperwork, and pursue necessary hearings or trial.
According to Randall Warden, the goal of Operation Crackdown has not changed since the program was started fourteen years ago—“to assist community residents in eliminating drug activity on properties in their neighborhoods.” Looking ahead this year, Warden says, “the program will focus . . . on expanding its network of volunteer lawyers and increasing educational efforts and outreach in the community.”