Liquor store held to be a public nuisance under the drug house law  

The PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent, v.FREETOWN HOLDINGS COMPANY et al., Defendants and Appellants.2024 WL 1325949 (Cal.App. 2 Dist.), 1

Summary: The People of the State of California sued Holiday Liquor for enabling a public nuisance claiming the store allowed illegal drug buyers and sellers to meet for sales. Holiday tolerated loitering and drug dealing, had no guards, stayed open until 2 a.m., and sold alcohol in cheap single-serving containers. The trial court granted summary judgment for the People and ordered Holiday to hire guards, to stop selling single-serving containers of alcohol, and to take other actions. The Court of Appeal affirmed.

The People filed a complaint describing ongoing drug dealing and gang-related violence within and in front of Holiday. The complaint asserted violations of (1) sections 11570 et seq. of the Health and Safety Code (the drug house law), (2) sections 3479 et seq. of the Civil Code (the public nuisance law), and (3) sections 17200 et seq. of the Business and Professions Code (the unfair competition law).

The People moved for summary judgment and summary adjudication and included hundreds of pages of supporting documents detailing crime at and around the store.

Evidence about drug trafficking and violence at Holiday Liquor

Detective Levin testified that the store had “developed a reputation in the community and amongst law enforcement as a location where illegal drugs are bought and sold” and “is essentially a place to wait for drugs that also has a snack bar where drug users and drug dealers can and do buy snacks, drinks, cigarettes, and alcohol.”

According to Levin, drug dealers knew they could buy cheap alcoholic drinks and wait at the store for customers. Customers knew they could score there. The store had allowed itself to become the neighborhood focal point for the drug trade, and those in the drug trade knew it. Based on his observations, Levin stated that  “Holiday Liquor is the primary cause of the illegal narcotics activity” in the area.

Officer Williams testified Holiday has been the subject of countless citizen complaints and calls to the police. He said that, “[o]n more than one occasion, community members have told me something along the lines of, ‘You have to do something about that store!’ (referring to Holiday Liquor).”

Williams testified that violent crime at Holiday “tends to occur later at night.”

Williams also testified that officers throughout the Southwest Division know of Holiday as a gang and narcotics nuisance location. Police in this division have come to expect reports of violent gang crimes at Holiday. This reputation for criminal activity is attributable specifically to Holiday, and not to the neighborhood in general.

Holiday Liquor opposes summary judgment

Holiday opposed the People’s summary judgment and summary adjudication motion. The owner argued that the liquor store did not cause problems like gang crime, drug dealing, and homelessness, he said; in fact, he sought help from the City Council to cope with “the inflow of homeless people, transients, and prostitutes on the West Adams corridor[.]” The City Council did nothing. The owner blamed the City for doing too little to fight the social vices in his area.

Injunction against Holiday Liquor

in September 2020, the court entered final judgment and a permanent injunction requiring Holiday to take remedial measures, including the hiring of guards, a restriction of operating hours, and an end to single-serving sales of alcohol.

The injunction required Holiday to station at least two armed guards between 2 p.m. and Holiday’s closing time. The court commanded Holiday to be closed between midnight and 6 a.m. “Do not offer for sale any single serve alcoholic beverages … including containers of wine or liquor with less than 25 ounces, and containers of beer with less than 41 ounces. This prohibition does not apply to alcoholic drinks packaged together (such as six-packs of beer).”

The doctrine of public nuisance is ancient, wide-ranging, active, and vague

California’s drug house statute.

California general public nuisance statute is the basis for one cause of action in this case. .

 “Anything which is injurious to health, including, but not limited to, the illegal sale of controlled substances, or is indecent or offensive to the senses, or an obstruction to the free use of property, so as to interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property, or unlawfully obstructs the free passage or use, in the customary manner, of any navigable lake, or river, bay, stream, canal, or basin, or any public park, square, street, or highway, is a nuisance.” (Civ. Code, § 3479, italics added (Section 3479 or the general nuisance statute).)

In 1972, the Legislature supplemented this general nuisance statutethe drug house law. “Every building or place used for the purpose of unlawfully selling, serving, storing, keeping, manufacturing, or giving away any controlled substance, precursor, or analog specified in this division, and every building or place wherein or upon which those acts take place, is a nuisance which shall be enjoined, abated, and prevented, and for which damages may be recovered, whether it is a public or private nuisance.” (Health & Saf. Code, § 11570, (Section 11570, or the drug house law, or the more specific nuisance statute).)

Under certain conditions,  a possessor of property is liable for failing to act to reduce the risk of harm that third parties pose to the community.

The American Law Institute spelled out the conditions for liability:

“A possessor of land upon which a third person carries on an activity that causes a nuisance is subject to liability for the nuisance if it is otherwise actionable, and

(a) the possessor knows or has reason to know that the activity is being carried on and that it is causing or will involve an unreasonable risk of causing the nuisance, and

 (b) he consents to the activity or fails to exercise reasonable care to prevent the nuisance.” (Rest.2d Torts § 838, italics added, quoted in Benetatos v. City of Los Angeles (2015) 235 Cal.App.4th 1270, 1283, 186 Cal.Rptr.3d 46 (Benetatos).)

The basis for liability here was the drug house statute. (Lew, supra, 20 Cal.App.4th at p. 872, 25 Cal.Rptr.2d 42.) Lew established three elements for a drug house case involving third parties. The plaintiff must prove:

1. Third parties used the defendant’s property for sales of illegal drugs;

2. The defendant knew or should have known it; and

3. The defendant failed to do what a reasonable person under similar circumstances would have done. (Lew, supra, 20 Cal.App.4th at pp. 874–875, 25 Cal.Rptr.2d 42.)

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