January 7, 2002

The General Assembly will be asked to establish minimum and significantly higher maximum fines for violations of county and municipal housing codes. That would be expected to strengthen New Castle County's hand in enforcing its code.

A legislative committee established to recommend steps to be taken in that regard completed its work on Jan. 4 by concluding that the situation which brought the matter of reputed lax treatment for repeat code violators to the fore was not what it originally was thought to be.

As previously reported by Delaforum, the special committee chaired by Representative Robert Valihura will recommend that a new provision be included in the state's criminal code defining creation of a  'community nuisance' as a misdemeanor for which a justice of the peace can sentence a violator to up to 30 days in jail.  That would occur after three convictions for the same building, housing, health or sanitation code within a three-year period.

Augmenting that at their most recent meeting, members of the committee agreed on recommending establishment of minimum fines of $100, $250 and $1,000, respectively, for the first, second and third convictions. Maximum fines would be set at $250, $1,000 and $5,000, respectively.

Magistrates would have the authority to suspend all or part of any fine except the minimum for a third conviction. A common practice is to suspend imposition of a penalty in return for correcting the violation within a stated period of time. The judges would not be required to impose maximum fines. Being judged guilty of a continuing violation would constitute a single conviction.

Discussion at the meeting revolved around providing both the magistrates and code enforcers with flexibility to tailor their actions to the specific circumstances of a given case while, at the same time, giving them a 'hammer' to compel compliance.

As far as can be determined, no one has ever been sent to jail for violation of the housing code.

Whether the Assembly will go along with the committee's penalty recommendations is uncertain. At a previous meeting Valihura raised the question of whether providing stiffer sanctions for such offenses would be regarded as politically acceptable.

Nevertheless, it was agreed at the most recent meeting that the committee's effort was not futile since airing the issue has brought about a new rapport between county code enforcement efforts and the justice of the peace system.

As Delaforum reported in November, an arrangement whereby all such cases will be heard in Court No. 11 at Hares Corner on the second and fourth Thursdays of each month goes into effect on a pilot basis on Jan. 10. That is expected to provide consistency in dealing with such cases.

Citing a recent newspaper article and editorial which she said gave "an incomplete and somewhat misleading perspective," Chief Magistrate Patricia Griffin requested that the committee's formal report specifically reflect that it "has not found significant problems with the Justice of the Peace courts' handling" of county code violations.

No committee member dissented and Valihura agreed to do so. "The report is not going to fix blame or find fault ... on the part of the city [of Wilmington], county or the court system," he said.

Griffin particularly noted that the case which primarily led to formation of the committee -- a house in the Claymont area which was and remains covered with ivy -- was not, as initially presented, evidence that the magistrate courts do not take such matters seriously.

On the contrary, she said, county code enforcers never charged that property owner with a violation because of the ivy overgrowth and, in fact, such is evidently not a violation of the county code. Megan D'Iorio, a county lawyer, agreed and indicated steps will be taken to bring it into the purview of the code.

Griffin noted that the property owner in question was charged only with violations relating to tall grass and inoperable motor vehicles. "Fines were imposed and collected for these violations," she reported.

The committee agreed to recommend that the county review is property codes to determine what additional conditions should be included.

It also agreed to recommend that the county make more extensive use of its power to correct code violations and to seek restitution through civil court action and property liens. 

2002. All rights reserved.

Get more information about this topic

Read previous story: Code cases to go to one court