Arthur J. Lurigio and Elizabeth Maine Ellis
Civil abatement involves the use of non-criminal remedies to address crime and public disorder in communities. Such remedies can hold accountable nonperpetrators of criminal activities, such as property and business owners, if those activities occur on the premises of the buildings or establishments that they are responsible for managing. Known as third-party policing, civil abatement strategies can also seek equity for non-criminal behaviors (e.g., standing in a public way), which are deemed to pose a threat to public safety, disrupt social order, and precipitate subsequent crimes. For example, antigang and antidrug ordinances are designed to alter situations or environments that provide opportunities for criminal activities. By bringing petitions to the civil courts, injunctions can be issued against the agents of public nuisances, such as known gang members who threaten the public by loitering on the streets or drug sellers who operate clandestinely from apartment buildings or drinking establishments. Violations of court injunctions can result in the closure of a property, the loss of a liquor license, or an arrest.
The uses of civil remedies to curtail or eradicate gang and drug activities have been challenged in the courts. For example, antiloitering ordinances have been found to be too vague in their proscriptions, too broad in their scope, and too nebulous in their targeting of residents. Such ordinances have also been found in violation of First or Fourteenth Amendment Rights. Nuisance abatement programs to reduce drug selling on private properties have resulted in modest successes in terms of enlisting property owners’ cooperation in evicting dealers from apartment buildings and appear to be effective with only an issuance of warning letters to landlords.