District Attorney Targets Renters Who Break Laws

By Bill Dries

Bill Gibbons

Jackie Condrey goes through about 400 arrest reports a month at the Criminal Justice Center, looking for indications of trouble in apartment complexes, high rises and rental housing - specifically drug dealing and prostitution.

Condrey, an investigator at the Shelby County District Attorney General's office, is the driving force behind the 10-year-old program that targets drug dealers and other lawbreakers who use rental property as a base of operations.

In a city that historically has had a higher percentage of renters than other cities its size, drug dealing in apartment complexes, duplexes and rental houses is a quality-of-life issue.

"We're very determined to go after drug dealers and prostitutes. ... We're going to prosecute those individuals," District Attorney General Bill Gibbons told a meeting this month of the Apartment Association of Greater Memphis. "But at the same time we don't want those individuals getting out on bond and going back to the same neighborhood - still engaging in drug trafficking or prostitution while awaiting trial. Even if they go to trial, they may get probation."

Even for property managers used to dealing with stubborn or unruly tenants, trying to evict someone engaged in a criminal enterprise can be dangerous.

Extra protection

Condrey and Gibbons heard at The Racquet Club of Memphis luncheon this month from an apartment manager threatened by a man who had been banned from the complex.

Keith Acton, president of the Apartment Association, said there may be "larger concentrations" of such problems in some areas of the city but that they exist at some level across the entire county.

"We have a limited scope of what we can do as property managers. Having the district attorney available to us is a great asset," he said. "They are an additional layer of protection for us. They provide us with that help when we are unable to go after drug dealers, prostitutes - those who are causing problems."

Condrey said prosecutors can move ahead with the evictions with or without property owners actively participating.

It only comes into play with tenants who are accused of drug dealing or prostitution. Simple drug use in an apartment doesn't trigger the process. Condrey scans the arrest reports and also takes tips from the public.

Suspects may get a direct inquiry from Memphis police. Others may be the target of undercover police operations. Civil court proceedings follow, but Condrey said in most cases the targeted tenants leave before it comes to an eviction. There have been 2,300 evictions under the program since 1997.

Eradicating a problem

In one extreme case, Gibbons went to court to have an entire apartment complex declared a nuisance under state law. The Pepper Tree apartment complex in Whitehaven was targeted for the environmental court action because of shootings and other violent crime that persisted in the complex.

"We were not going in trying to remove and put those tenants on the street. What we really did was work with management very successfully," he said. "Did it totally eradicate crime in the Pepper Tree apartments? No. But it has helped."

The owners agreed to take such measures as hiring security guards and putting up access gates to control traffic into and out of parking lots in the complex.

Sometimes communications issues arise. One Downtown high rise manager said police told her she had to detain a guest banned from the building in the lobby so he could be arrested for trespassing. Once he got to his friend's apartment, she said police told her there was nothing they could do.

Gibbons and Condrey said they would discuss that with police brass.