Cities may impose conditions on businesses whose operations invite criminal activity, even in high-crime neighborhoods

Benetatos et al. v. City of Los Angeles, (2nd Dist. Ct. of App.), 2015 DJDAR 4149 (April 14, 2015)

Approving a potential mechanism for low income communities working with local government to combat crime in economically depressed neighborhoods, the Court of Appeal recently upheld a city’s effort to hold business owners accountable for their role in facilitating criminal activity.

The Los Angeles zoning administrator imposed, and the city council land use committee affirmed, a number of mitigation measures on the owners of a 24-hour fast food restaurant in Los Angeles that had become a magnet for prostitution, drug trade and public intoxication.

The owners filed a petition for writ of mandate in Superior Court challenging the operating conditions imposed by the city, resisting the requirements that they hire a security guard, reduce nighttime service hours and install video surveillance equipment. They contended that prior anti-crime measures they undertook at the request of the Los Angeles Police Department, including removing pay phones and outdoor seating, resulted in a significant loss of revenue. The owners argued that the court should use the independent review standard in assessing the validity of the operating conditions due to significant expense involved in complying with those conditions. The petitioners also argued that the restaurant was located in a high-crime area and the city was holding the owners responsible for the criminal activity of third parties. Applying the substantial evidence standard, the court found the operating conditions were a valid exercise of the city’s police power because it properly determined that the petitioner’s failure to maintain their property in a manner consistent with public safety and to discourage criminal activity constituted a public nuisance subject to abatement.

On appeal to the 2nd District Court of Appeal, the owners argued their petition should have been reviewed using the independent judgment standard, since the abatement measures imposed were so expensive they would force the owners to close the restaurant, abridging a fundamental vested right. Finding that the owners presented insufficient evidence of the cost or burden of the operating conditions imposed by the city, the court held that the owner’s right was not a fundamental vested right and that the court below appropriately used the substantial evidence standard of review. The court further held that substantial evidence supported the lower court’s finding that under Los Angeles Municipal Code Section 12.27.1, the restaurant was operated in a manner that constituted a nuisance and that the city’s abatement measures properly addressed that nuisance.