Exile on 18th Street
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.
Della Judd says she was blindsided by Ghianda's dredging up of past offenses -- many of which she claims had nothing to do with her or her property. Because the Judds had no knowledge beforehand of the evidence to be presented, they could not mount a credible defense. Judd admits she's been involved in her share of narcotics-related crimes in the past but says she's beyond that these days. "I don't know why they picked now to go after me," she says. "Why didn't they go after the house back when I was bad? All I want now is to be with my grandkids."
After brief discussion of the testimony, the NAB concluded that the only way to end the nuisance at 502 18th St. was to expel all occupants and board up the house for ten months beginning December 15. "We were dumbfounded," says Caroline Judd, who lives at the house.
She began searching for some legal recourse and eventually was referred to Keogh, who works with elderly clients. He filed a motion in circuit court on December 14 to quash the NAB's order and also requested an emergency injunction to allow the family back into the house. But the court declined to schedule a hearing on the injunction, so the house was boarded on December 19, and the family became homeless. Della and Maxie Judd slept in their car that night.
On December 20, the NAB held its monthly meeting, and during its review of the Judd case, Keogh asked board members to let the family return home. "We think the remedy is too severe, removing Mr. and Mrs. Judd from their home," he told them. "They're elderly people."
Board members, however, were resolute. "We can't eliminate all the drug activity in the neighborhood at one time," said NAB chairwoman Sherry Hyman. "All we can do is do it house by house. If we eliminate drug activity from this house, that's one piece of this puzzle of trying to rid the city of this kind of illegal activity." She reiterated that the crimes were "inextricably entwined" with the home and its occupants -- wording referenced in two Florida state Supreme Court decisions that allow nuisance abatement boards to seize properties without compensating owners.
Keogh argued that because no young black man resided at 502 18th St. when the drugs were purchased, removing the other residents would accomplish nothing. "A boarded and abandoned house would only serve to invite further illegal activity into the area," Keogh wrote in the court motion. Keogh told the NAB that he would sue the city for damages if the family were not allowed back into the house.
Hyman said the threat of a lawsuit would not influence the board's actions, but she soon struck a more conciliatory tone. "I would be inclined to allow the boards to come off and let Mr. Judd back in the property and exclude Mrs. Judd," Hyman said.
Other board members were unswayed. "We made an order, and I think we should stand by it," declared Scott Addlesberger. "I want compliance with our order."
Ghianda also remained adamant: "It's been 20 years of problems."
But Hyman pressed for flexibility, and the board voted unanimously to allow everyone but Della Judd to return. "You can see you don't have a very sympathetic group of people up here," Hyman lectured the Judd coterie. "If there is still illegal activity going on at this property next month, I wouldn't put any hope whatsoever in getting relief. The boards will have to go back on, and you can bring whatever action you want to bring."
Thus, the family had a roof over its head for Christmas -- everyone, that is, except for Della Judd, who has now been exiled for a month from the property she owns. Keogh describes the board's semireversal as "pretty weird" and continues: "They kind of kick these people around. When they're finally challenged or an attorney comes in there, [the board] seems to back off a little bit."
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