City of Houston sues to shut down corner store for not addressing crime in their area

Mycah Hatfield Image
Thursday, July 7, 2022
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A convenience store that too often has been caught up in violent crime, finds itself in the middle of a battle over keeping Houston safe.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- The Lucky Evening Food Store in southwest Houston has been open for 20 years under the same owner.

"It has gotten progressively worse in terms of crime over the last few decades, but these people were committed to the community," Loyd Neal, the attorney representing the owner of the store, said.

In March, the store, located in the 8900 block of South Braeswood, and property owners were hit with a common nuisance lawsuit by the city.

The lawsuit read there have been repeated incidents of delivery and possession of controlled substances, robbery, aggravated robbery, aggravated assaults, unlawful carrying of a weapon, and murder at the property.

"They are being sued because they supposedly, knowingly tolerate crime at this property," Neal said.

When Mayor Sylvester Turner and Houston Police Chief Troy Finner announced the One Safe Houston initiative in February 2022, they vowed to file suit against businesses deemed as crime hot spots.

Neal and his client do not disagree that crime is bad in the area. In an exhibit filed in the case, they list the 720 incidents that happened within 1,000 feet of the food store from Jan. 1, 2020, to June 22, 2022. Employees have had their cars shot and there are bullet holes in the side of the building.

"I would argue that you can't go to the city and say that the employees of the convenience store can stop a bullet or should be liable for someone driving by and committing crimes and shooting people," Neal said.

The strip center is surrounded by apartment complexes and a homeless camp.

They have installed surveillance cameras, burglar bars, high-intensity lighting, and signage to prevent loiterers and trespassing affidavits, according to the store's attorney.

"They don't want that element present," Neal said. "They want the city to come in and provide the police protection that they pay the taxes for and protect them."

The store owner has realized that calling the police is actually detrimental to his business. With each call they make to police for help, they believe that it's another mark against them in the eyes of the city that has ultimately led to this lawsuit.

"You're like, wait a minute," Neal said. "We are calling the police and reporting the criminals and then you are using that stat to presume our guilt under the statute that we aren't stopping crime?"

It has become a self-fulfilling problem in their eyes.

City Attorney Arturo Michel said they base who they file the Chapter 125 suits against in many ways on complaints.

"We rely on information from HPD and we rely on the body of case law that looks at what level of instances, and whether the owners have done anything to remediate," Michel said. "It's on a case-by-case basis. It's not an exact objective determination. There is a lot of subjectivity that goes into it, but we have an entire section of the legal department that looks at that continuously."

The state statute allows the attorney general's office, district, counties, cities, or individuals to bring the suits against "a person who maintains a place to which persons habitually go for the following purposes and who knowingly tolerates the activity and furthermore fails to make reasonable attempts to abate the activity maintains a common nuisance." The statute goes on to list more than two dozen crimes.

The city is seeking a temporary and permanent injunctive order against the store and property to stop allowing crime.

"One of the penalties is the city can come in and turn off your utilities," Neal explained. "The city can come in and revoke your certificate of occupancy. Another penalty is the city can force the landlord to come in and terminate your lease. One of them says if you violate the injunction, you can be put in jail."

Neal has filed a challenge to the constitutionality of the state statute used in the suit. He said it violates both the Texas and U.S. constitutions, among several reasons, he said it is vague.

"This is a very significant legal issue right now," Neal said. "What it's done is being used to aggressively pursue innocent tax-paying businesses and shift to them the responsibility to stop crime, but what is so unfair about it is not only are they at risk of losing their businesses and property and equipment and having their property shut down, but now innocent business owners are being asked to spend tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees to defend themselves."

He said the statute was not meant to shut down tax-paying businesses that are not stopping criminals.

Based on what a judge rules on Neal's complaint, there could be statewide effects.

"Now if you shut down this convenience store, do you think you've stopped crime?" Neal asked. "No, you've just moved it down the street. It's done nothing but make the city look like they accomplished something by taking some action or maybe putting $10,000 in someone's pocket as a penalty."

ABC13 reached out to the city to raise Neal and his client's concerns, and ask if they intended to pursue a suit against any high-crime apartment complexes in the city, but did not hear back.

The city also filed a nuisance lawsuit against Spivey's Uptown Nightclub.

"I think Spivey's in many ways, it does not look like TABC is going to grant them their liquor license and it may be folded all into that," Michel said.

A spokesperson for TABC told ABC13 that currently their liquor permit is expired and they are under an active investigation. Based on the outcome, they may not have it renewed.

The city also said they filed a TABC protest against Standard Bar on Washington Ave. TABC confirmed that they too are under investigation that should wrap up in the coming week. The outcome will determine their ability to hold a liquor permit.

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