It’s every homeowner’s fear: a neighbor’s yard filled with garbage and junk, the sounds of people arguing and coming and going at night, and finally the flash and bang that disorients the residents inside the house.
For the Renton Police Department and code-enforcement inspectors, the goal is to make sure those stun grenades never have to be deployed, as they were early on April 4 at a home on lower Earlington Hill.
That raid by city’s Special Enforcement Team and Valley SWAT was the culmination of more than 10 years of police calls to 370 Earlington Ave. S.W. to investigate possible criminal activities and of civil citations for failure to comply with city codes.
“If people are working with us, we just want the compliance. We don’t want to fine them. We don’t want to take them to court,” said Tim Lawless, the Renton code-enforcement inspector whose territory includes downtown Renton and Earlington.
“Come on. Bring yourself up to the level that’s standard to your neighborhood and we’re good,” he said.
It was garbage that finally landed 70-year-old Therron O. Smith in a Renton city courtroom, facing a jury trial on a criminal citation for unlawfully depositing garbage and junk – bulky waste – on his property.
Renton prosecutors requested a jury trial that likely would happen on July 21 or 22, following a hearing July 19.
In an interview with the Renton Reporter on Tuesday, Smith said his property “is cleaned up. It was always filthy and there was garbage all over. It’s now cleaned up.”
During the raid in early April, officers found 23 people inside the house, which surprised even investigators.
“All those people who were around aren’t going to be around,” Smith said. “They haven’t been around for three months.”
Smith explained that his granddaughter, who was living in the house, decided “to have a lot of people over” and they “were all basically smoking pot. They never cleaned up when they left.”
He said his granddaughter has been living in California for about three months. He now has “a couple people” at the house who are helping him clean up and patch holes in the walls.
Police officers sometimes drive by and “take a look,” he said.
Lawless’s first inspection of Smith’s property was in May 2014, after complaints were received from neighbors, who, according to a Renton Police report, had complained the front yard looked like a junkyard, transients were coming and going and someone was living in a tent in the backyard.
Lawless would return for follow-up inspections, accompanied by Renton Police officers, to see whether Smith was complying with city codes. He was – on the day of the inspection, according to Lawless.
“Since the beginning, I’ve never seen any significant improvement last more than 48 hours,” said Lawless in a recent interview.
That failure to follow through is what sets apart the Earlington case from similar ones Lawless has investigated in Renton, he said. It’s also a textbook case about how the public can get involved to clean up a neighborhood and why the city has a Nuisance Abatement Ordinance.
How the process works
Call, call, call.
That’s Lawless’s advice for anyone living next to a problem house or business: call the 24-hour code-enforcement hotline at 425-430-7373 or contact code-enforcement inspectors.
Renton Police officers report potential code violations, too, as part of a multi-departmental effort to investigate and enforce the city’s Nuisance Abatement Ordinance.
“But having the residents join us, help us, is only going to make it more powerful,” said city spokeswoman Preeti Shridhar of building a case against violators.
The city will then investigate whether a property is complying with city codes controlling vehicle parking and repair, garbage, vegetation or abandoned or vacant buildings, among others.
Formal civil enforcement action begins with a warning of violation, which spells out the violation and what needs to be done to correct it. If necessary, a second warning is sent; the property owners have another 15 days to comply with the code.
“Then we send a fine. And then we send a bigger fine. And then a bigger fine,” said Lawless if the written warnings aren’t heeded. “And after three, if nothing is changed, then it can go criminal.” The fines are $100, $200 and $300, for a total of $600.
If code violations aren’t resolved in this civil process, then they can become criminal violations, such as the citation against Smith. If he’s found guilty, Smith, who is represented by a public defender, could face up to 90 days in jail or a $1,000 fine or both.
Police investigate too
Often, there is a parallel criminal investigation of a property. Dozens of incident reports were written for 370 Earlington Avenue, ranging from public nuisance, to warrants, to assault and to recovery of stolen vehicles.
Stolen property was recovered during the April raid at the house. The address frequently appeared in the Police Department’s incident logs for investigation of stolen vehicles.
Renton City Attorney Larry Warren sent a letter to Smith on April 18 informing him that local law enforcement agencies had responded to his property 44 times for calls for service or suspected criminal activity in the past 12 months.
“This creates a public nuisance that is forbidden under the Renton Municipal Code,” the letter stated.
The city also investigates troubled businesses in enforcing code or criminal violations. For example, the city worked with the Washington state Liquor Control Board to take action against Home Run Restaurant and Lounge on Airport Way, which closed.
“That’s a problem that was really troubling the area,” said Shridhar said of Home Run.
The cases that code enforcement investigates are spread throughout Renton, so there’s not necessarily one area in the city that’s hardest hit, according to Shridhar.
From personal experience – seeing SWAT and hearing the flashbangs in his own neighborhood in Renton – Lawless knows what it’s like to live next to a troubled property.
“I can completely sympathize with people,” he said. “Every time I run into a bad house like this, it’s like, I know how they feel. I have the same thing going on. I get it.”
And, sometimes, Lawless and other code-enforcement inspectors won’t go into a “bad house” unless they’re accompanied by at least one police officer if they have concerns for their safety.
That was the case with the Earlington house.
“This particular one, the very first time I went in May 2014, before I went, I called and I was told, ‘Don’t go alone.’ I was like, thank you very much. I appreciate the cooperation and the heads up,” he said.
“I don’t have Kevlar, I don’t have a gun, I don’t have a belt. I don’t have a badge,” he said.
With Earlington, he made formal appointments with the owner and was accompanied by “at least four officers and two squad cars minimum.” On two occasions, officers arrested individuals wanted on warrants, he said.
“And I am over there building this case about illegal garbage storage,” he said.
He counsels neighbors to call 911 about criminal activities they see on their streets.
“You keep calling. Don’t get frustrated and give up. You have to keep calling because, believe it or not, the system works; sometimes it’s slow,” he said. “But enough calls come in, patrol is going to reroute some patrols to get a little better coverage somewhere.” And call a neighbor to have them call 911. “More is better,” he said.
Today, officers continue to patrol on Earlington Avenue, past the house, sometimes when they’re looking for a stolen car. The number of police reports at 370 Earlington has plummeted since the April raid, but that wouldn’t reflect any calls for service officers made that didn’t generate a police report.
There’s a sense in the neighborhood that any peace may not last.
Larry Crim, president of the Earlington Hill Neighborhood Associations, says there are still occasionally trailers filled with debris parked on the street or around the corner.
“From a neighborhood standpoint, it hasn’t changed much,” he said.
Shridhar said those who enforce civil regulations face “a balancing act.” On one hand, residents have “significant detrimental impacts on quality of life,” she said.
“The other side of it is everyone has civil rights, everyone has a right to their home to do what is appropriate in their homes,” she said. “It’s not to target without reason or just because I don’t like my neighbor.”
But “the benefits are huge,” she said, of enforcing the city’s Nuisance Abatement Ordinance.