Administrative and Public Health Law

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Civil remedies are defined as procedures and sanctions, specified by civil statutes and regulations, used to prevent or reduce criminal problems and incivilities (Mazerolle & Roehl, 1998). Drug control is a primary application of many civil remedy programs. Police departments, city prosecutors, and community members use civil remedies in an effort to disrupt illegal activities at drug-selling locations. This approach to drug control typically targets nonoffending third parties (e.g., landlords, property owners) and utilizes nuisance and drug abatement statutes. These types of abatement statutes include repair requirements, fines, padlocks/closing, and property forfeiture and seek to make owners and landlords maintain drug- and nuisance-free properties. Police often work with teams of city agency representatives to inspect drug nuisance properties, coerce landowners to clean up blighted properties, post "no trespassing" signs, enforce civil law codes and municipal regulatory rules, and initiate court proceedings against property owners who fail to comply with civil law citations.

Growth in the use of civil remedies as a crime control or crime prevention tactic is attributable to several factors. First, the accessibility of civil remedy tools provides frustrated and disadvantaged communities with alternative avenues to reverse the spiral of decline. Second, the increasing use of civil remedies comes at a time when communities and law enforcement officials recognize that many criminal remedies are neither effective nor desirable for a wide range of problems. Third, growth in civil remedy approaches to crime control coincides with increasing societal emphasis on prevention.

Many civil remedy actions seek to reduce signs of physical (e.g., broken windows, graffiti, trash) and social (e.g., public drinking, loitering, public urination) incivilities in the hope that cleaned-up places will break the cycle of neighborhood decline and subsequently decrease victimization, fear of crime, and alienation. Code enforcement, drug nuisance abatement, neighborhood cleanup and beautification, and Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) interventions comprise civil remedy actions that are typically used to control drug problems. Youth curfews, gang injunctions, ordinances controlling public behavior, and restraining orders are other examples of civil remedies that seek to alter criminal opportunities and prevent drug-selling problems from escalating.

Pressures on property owners and managers often result in corrections of health and safety violations, enforced cleanup and upkeep efforts, evictions of problem tenants, and improved property management. Bans on drug paraphernalia, alcohol-related billboard advertising, spray paint, and cigarette machines in high crime areas are used in an attempt to disrupt the illegal activities at drug-selling locations. Injunctions against gangs, youth curfews, and domestic violence restraining orders are used to prevent and deter potential perpetrators from engaging in criminal behavior. When useful civil statutes are absent, community groups, legislators, and policy makers often work together to enact new legislation.

Unlike traditional criminal sanctions, civil remedies attempt to resolve underlying problems: the motel's poor management, the absentee owner's neglect. The use of civil remedies tends to be proactive and oriented toward prevention, whereas, at the same time, civil remedies aim to enhance the quality of life and eliminate opportunities for problems to occur or reappear.

Police use existing public health and controlled substances acts to send warning letters to property owners informing them that complaints of problem activities (e.g., drug dealing) have been reported on their property, advise them of steps to take in preventing or minimizing the problems, and offer assistance in resolving the problem. The letters serve as an official notice of drug activity. Fines and other civil penalties may occur if violations are not corrected, and there are fees for reinspections to cover city costs. If owners do not correct the problem, there are penalties that include fines, closure of the property for up to one year, and sale of the property to satisfy city costs. The city attorney's office can file suit against owners who do not take responsibility for their property.

Civil remedies offer an attractive alternative to criminal remedies since they are relatively inexpensive and easy to implement. Citizens can make a difference by documenting problems, pressuring police and prosecutors to take appropriate civil action, or spearheading drives to establish useful local ordinances. A group of neighbors can pursue a nuisance abatement action in small claims court without the assistance of police or public prosecutors (Roehl, Wong & Andrews, 1997). Moreover, civil laws require a lower burden of proof than criminal actions and do not involve the requirements of due process, making them easier to apply yet open to concerns about fairness and equity (Cheh, 1991).

The use of civil remedies to solve crime and disorder problems continues to grow in popularity. Police regularly use civil laws, local city regulations, and ordinances to control drug, disorder, and other crime problems. Community groups often work with policy makers to instigate civil remedy action to solve intractable neighborhood problems. The civil remedy approach appears to be an effective and relatively cost-effective approach to control drug problems (Mazerolle, Price & Roehl, 2000).


Cheh, M. M. (1991). Constitutional limits on using civil remedies to achieve criminal law objectives: Understanding and transcending the criminal-civil law distinction. The Hastings Law Journal, 42 :1325-1413.

Mazerolle, L. Green, J.F. Price, and J. Roehl (2000). Civil remedies and drug control: A randomized field trial in Oakland, CA. Evaluation Review, 24, (2) 211-239.

Mazerolle, L. Green &J. Roehl (1998). Civil remedies and crime prevention: An introduction. In: L. Green Mazerolle & J. Roehl (Eds.), Civil Remedies and Crime Prevention: Crime Prevention Studies. Vol 9. Monsey, NY: Criminal Justice Press. 1-20.

Roehl, J., H. Wong, & C. Andrews (1997). The use of civil remedies by community organizations for neighborhood crime and drug abatement. Pacific Grove, CA: Institute for Social Analysis.

Lorraine Green Mazerolle

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