Episcopo, acting chief attorney, said the county's law
department and the state's chief magistrate, Patricia Griffin,
agreed to the arrangement on a pilot basis to determine if
having the cases heard before a small group of judges will
provide more consistency in processing the cases and the
sentences which are handed down.
cases will be heard on the second and fourth Thursday mornings
of each month, with the option to add a third set time if that
proves necessary, he said. Fewer than 5% of cases arising out of
code enforcement complaints end up in court; most are resolved
without enforcement officers having to bring criminal charges.
agreement is based in a similar arrangement by which the city of
Wilmington brings all such cases to the only magistrate court
located in the city. City officials say they are satisfied with
the results. The city has far more property cases than the
agreement apparently resolves one of three major issues
presented to a legislative committee chaired by state
Representative Robert Valihura which was established after
county officials complained that magistrates were not taking
code enforcement seriously and were letting scofflaws off the
hook with figurative slaps on the wrist, if that.
state legislation which Valihura drafted to strengthen the laws
and limit the lower court judges' description toward leniency by
setting minimum mandatory sentences bogged down for lack of
consensus at a committee meeting on Nov. 20. Valihura agreed to
modify it language and bring it back to the committee before the
General Assembly reconvenes in January.
Councilman Robert Weiner, who has led the charge for stricter
enforcement, told the meeting that he is not yet satisfied that
there is a procedure enabling him and his colleagues to track
the disposition of property code complaints brought by their
constituents. He said the recent appointment of Marty Kirk
as community governing administrator, with responsibility for
code enforcement, promises improvement in that regard.
numerous continuances of court cases resulted in resolution of
complains stretching out, in some instances, over a matter of
years, giving people the impression the county was lax in
enforcing its codes or was unable to do so. Weiner also acknowledged
that judgments about whether to prosecute cases based upon such
things as claims of personal hardship are responsible for some
have a very bad feeling that we're going to be back hearing
complains from the public if we don't keep track," he said.
was disclosed at the committee meeting that the law department
has determined that a long-standing situation involving a house
literally smothered with ivy apparently does not violate the
housing code. "The code does not authorize us to cite
anyone for having ivy on their house," said Megan D'Iorio,
a county lawyer.
response to a comment during discussion that "a lot of Du
Ponts would be unhappy" if it did, Valihura said the case
in point went well beyond using the green vines as legitimate
adornment for stately residences and other buildings and
affected the health and safety of the surrounding community.
That Claymont property owner has been cited numerous times for
other code violations.
agreed to look again at the situation -- about which a Delaforum
report lead, in part, to formation of the committee -- from that
presenting a draft of proposed legislation Valihura told the
committee that, while he favored enacting such a law, "I
doubt if it is going to fly politically."
it indirectly enables magistrates to impose jail sentences of up
to 30 days, it is likely to be viewed as at least threatening to
imprison someone for failure to cut their grass. State
lawmakers, he indicated, are unlikely to agree with Weiner's
characterization of it as "an ultimate weapon" whose
presence, even if never used, would induce compliance with the
county and city of Wilmington property codes provide for jail
sentences, but state law, which takes precedence, does not
specifically authorize that penalty for such offences. Griffin
has concluded that, without such authorization, magistrates
cannot do so.
proposal would change that by establishing a new state crime
which he calls "community nuisance." That is defined
as the third or more offense against the same provision of a
county or municipal building, housing, health or sanitation code
within a three-year period. It would be designated as an 'unclassified
misdemeanor', for which state law allows authorizes up to a
month in jail.
would have the option of deciding whether they wanted to bring a
charge under the state code or the local law. If brought under
state law, the defendant would have the right to have the case
transferred to the Court of Common Pleas, where he or she could
have a jury trial.
that got endorsement from the committee -- Valihura said he
would not take votes but act only on consensus -- sections of
the law setting minimum penalties for violations which would
increase with repetition. The minimum fines, which could not be
suspended in whole or in part, would range upward from $100. The
maximum for a third or subsequent offence would be $2,000.
discussion which followed centered on the wisdom of limiting
judicial discretion and Valihura decided to table the issue
pending modification of the language in the proposed law.