WILMINGTON — Earlier this week, the City of Wilmington notified several Market Street hotels that they could rent rooms to local residents without facing legal repercussions for violating a court order.
So, what was the court order, and how did hotels end up facing such a restriction in the first place?
Legal cases generally fall into one of two categories when brought to court — criminal or civil cases. While most crime prevention techniques and police enforcement work within the scope of criminal law, District Attorney Ben David is taking a unique approach to fighting crime — specifically gang violence — in Wilmington through civil law.
Criminal law is typically applied to crimes like murder, drunken driving, and assault; only the state or federal government can levy these charges.
Civil law deals with issues like libel and slander, and can be brought forward by anyone who has been injured – but civil laws can be used to help prevent crimes like drug trafficking and prostitution when applied in the form of nuisance abatements or restraining orders.
Another difference between criminal and civil law is the establishment of guilt. Criminal cases require the prosecution to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt while civil cases have a lower threshold. Plaintiffs must prove defendants’ liability only according to the “preponderance of evidence” — in legal terms, that means only that the majority of the evidence points towards guilt. In other words, while a defendant can win a criminal case by introducing only a sliver of doubt, a defendant in a civil case needs a much stronger defense.
One of the first instances in Wilmington of the use of civil injunctions to help curb crime was not actually against people per se, instead, it was against hotels that were considered hot spots for crime. On Tuesday, the City of Wilmington announced it had loosened restrictions on local hotels that were previously prohibited from renting rooms to local residents in an attempt to curb crime rates at them.
According to a press release, “The City of Wilmington has notified a few local hotels originally placed under a court order in an unrelated matter that they will not take legal action against them if they rent rooms to any local resident with a FEMA/Red Cross voucher, or who can otherwise show that they have been displaced out of their home due to the storm.”
The Carolinian Inn on Market Street was one of the hotels that were slapped with a “nuisance abatement.”
In May of 2017, David filed a temporary restraining order against the hotel prohibiting any illegal activities. According to an affidavit filed by the Wilmington Police Department, the Carolinian Inn was a hub for crime, including: Prostitution, done for money or drugs; the selling of heroin, cocaine and crack cocaine; and repeated breaches of the peace, including assaults, robberies, shootings “and other violent and disruptive acts.”
The restraining order stated the owners knew about the activities taking place on their property but refused to do anything about it.
“The DA’s Office is filing this suit in an effort to be responsive to citizen complaints. Citizens who live or work near this property say violent and disruptive incidents in the area are constant because of the criminal element at the Carolinian Inn. They don’t feel safe, and they shouldn’t have to tolerate that environment,” David said in a press release from 2017.
The Carolinian is not the only hotel that has been hit with nuisance abatements, the Ramada Inn, as well as several other hotels, were also impacted by these civil suits.
Comply or close
What rights do hotel owners, gang members, and bars that are often associated with high crime rates have? According to the injunctions against these different entities, their rights are restricted compared to those that do not suffer from the same incidents.
David likened the restrictions to those placed on the freedom of speech saying you do not have the right to shout fire in a crowded theater.
“The first thing we did is we looked at heroin trafficking and human trafficking that was existing in places that we had hooks in, which is anyone with a bank note on Market Street at these motels. We said, ‘You’re a piece of crap, you don’t even live here and you’re the guy who owns this; but guess who cares, the bank who has $2 million owed to them who holds the note, and were about to take their collateral because we can seize your motel tonight,” David said.
He also said he worked with the banks who technically owned the motels to come to an agreement to help curb the crimes taking place on their property.
“We said to the banks, ‘We’ve had all these complaints involving heroin trafficking and human trafficking — we’ve got you cold … there are people committing crimes in your place, you are renting rooms out by the hour, when cops come you are literally calling up to say ‘bail out the back,’ you’re not giving us our books, you’re denying that people were even there when we’re looking for them,” David said.
In order to keep their hotels up and running, the owners were required to work with the DA by installing cameras in parking lots, allowing access to records and bookings whenever asked, and requiring identification for all guests checking in — and forbidding them to rent to anyone with a local address.
“… People have to have ID to check in and if they are locals, why the hell are they staying at a motel? In fact, you shouldn’t have any locals staying at a motel unless we call it off because of a storm like we just did. We want to have parking decals and if you say no, we’re going to seize your motel, and that is exactly what we did with five of them; they re-branded and they upped their standards,” David said.
When it comes to crime, David is not naive thinking that because one motel has changed that all crime will disappear – he likened the change in locations to squeezing water. The crime will move and end up in a new location, but the impact of disrupting the current crimes gives relief to areas that have been plagued with crime.
“You are like, ‘Well Ben, did they move somewhere else?’ Sure some of it is moving somewhere else but if you look at Ramada [Inn], if you look at Red Roof [Inn], if you look at the crime pre-injunction versus post-injunction [it has gone down].”
Much like injunctions the city and district attorney filed against bars in the region that were attracting gang members and crime, David understands that these measures force criminals to move. But when they are forced into areas they do not have a strong presence in, residents are less likely to tolerate the crimes and enforcement can take place easier, he said.
Author’s Note: The use of nuisance abatements against hotels is just one instance of David’s attempt to curb crime through civil law, in upcoming stories Port City Daily will take a look at some of the other attempts including injunctions against validated gang members.
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