Exile on 18th Street

By forcing a grandmother to sleep in a car outside her own home, a city board goes too far

Della Judd is a bundle of nervous energy, shifting from foot to foot on the sidewalk in front of her small house on 18th Street in West Palm Beach. It's a chilly afternoon this day in early January, but her constant motion has less to do with the frigid air than simmering rage. She's a frail-looking black woman who wears rose-tinted glasses and rarely looks someone in the eye when speaking. Dressed head to toe in black -- leather jacket, jeans, and nylon scarf -- the 61-year-old vents about her plight.

A gaggle of her grandchildren meanders toward Judd, who routinely growls at them to put on jackets or stay out of the street. Judd's house is a cream-colored bungalow, and its front door hangs open for the constantly roaming kids. "I can stand here, just not on the property," she says from her sidewalk purgatory. A police squad car idles a block away, its driver at times observing the corner lot owned by Judd and her husband. "I'm too old for all this shit," she complains.

Since just before Christmas, Judd has lived not in the family house but in an old, black, Chevy sedan parked at the curb. She spends her days and sometimes her nights in the car's back seat. Occasionally, she stays at her daughter's home, but "we don't get along very well," Judd says of that living arrangement.

In November, the city's Nuisance Abatement Board (NAB) ordered the Judds' house boarded up and all its occupants out, alleging that the property was a haven for drug dealing. Although the board relented late last month, allowing Judd's husband, daughter-in-law, and three grandchildren to return, its members were firm in banning Della Judd from the property for six months.

The West Palm Beach NAB can wield great power over residents, landlords, and tenants. A New Times cover story last month ("This Bad House," Wyatt Olson, December 6) examined the sometimes-harsh actions the board takes to achieve its goals, which include curtailing drug dealing and prostitution. The 13-year-old NAB has the power to displace tenants and owners, board up properties, and levy fines up to $15,000. Many residents brought before the board are poor and unable to prepare a vigorous defense.

But in late December, Christopher Keogh, an attorney for the Legal Aid Society of West Palm Beach, took up Judd's case and filed a lawsuit challenging the board's decision in Palm Beach County Circuit Court. When the NAB reviews Judd's case on January 24, Keogh will once again try to persuade the board's members to relent. If they don't, the suit will move forward. A victory for Judd could have far-reaching implications, perhaps limiting the power of NABs throughout Florida.

Judd has an extensive arrest record, with three drug-related felony convictions in the late 1980s. Her last felony was in 1997, when she pleaded guilty to selling cocaine. "I used to fight," she says. "Even went to jail for shooting a gun." But she swears her wild days are now behind her and grows annoyed when talking about the "harassment" she claims the city is putting her through. Rather than being the scourge of the neighborhood, she claims to be a watchdog. And she's protective of her property -- even if she can't step foot on it. She glares at a young man strolling past the front yard on the sidewalk. "I told you not to come around here," she hisses at him as he passes.

Caroline Judd, Della's daughter-in-law, describes her as a "full-hearted" woman whom many in the neighborhood call "Ma Della." "This woman participates in the community," the younger Judd says. "People in need turn to her." Caroline Judd is convinced that the Judd homestead, located in the Pleasant City neighborhood, is more a victim of urban gentrification than anything else. Pleasant City abuts Northwood Street, a collection of trendy shops and restaurants, and she believes the city wants to drive out low-income, black families.

Della Judd's woes with the NAB began in August, when the city's narcotics squad sent an undercover informant to her house at 502 18th St. to buy drugs. According to police records, the informant bought cocaine from an unidentified black man at the property on August 21 and 30 and again on September 7. On September 21, police obtained a warrant to search the house but found no illegal drugs. Della Judd, however, was charged with possession of paraphernalia used for smoking crack cocaine. The misdemeanor was dropped October 24 after Judd agreed to attend drug-treatment meetings.

But Judd's real problems were yet to come, because the three orchestrated drug buys met the definition of "nuisance" under the city ordinance that established the NAB. Thus, Della and her 68-year-old husband, Maxie Judd, were required to face the board at its November meeting, during which two police officers testified. One of them was Sgt. Ronald Ghianda, the West Palm Beach Police Department's liaison to the NAB, who took the opportunity to cite Della Judd's home as the city's perennial epicenter of illegal activity. "It is the most despicable property I can think of," Ghianda told the board after reciting a litany of crimes allegedly perpetrated by Della Judd and her relatives over the past 20 years that included drug sales, aggravated battery, robbery, possession of illegal firearms, and disorderly conduct.

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