Clean Up or Ship Out

John Pierson to the city's inspections department: If I'd known you were coming I'd have baked a cake

John Pierson didn't want to call the police after his South Minneapolis home was broken into on June 23. The MPD, he says, hadn't been much help in stopping the burglars who'd vandalized his Lyndale neighborhood home last November. This time, though, Pierson figured he didn't have much choice: Whoever busted into his house in June not only turned the place inside out, he says, they also tried to burn it down--cranking up the oven and torching paper towels on the front porch on the way out.

What Pierson didn't count on was that reporting the break-in to the cops would start a process that may result in the forfeiture of his house. When two 5th Precinct officers arrived to investigate the burglary, he says, they appeared to be less concerned with what might have been stolen than with conditions inside his two-story house. "The woman officer walks in and immediately starts going off about the place," Pierson recalls. "She kept saying 'I can't believe this place.' I said, 'I've just been robbed. Of course it's trashed!' She just said, 'This is disgusting. The board of health is going to hear about this.'"

Hear about the house they did--on a tip from one of the officers who responded to the call. Two days after the break-in, Pierson came home to find several empty Polaroid film boxes scattered across his floor, and a notice issued by the city's Department of Inspections plastered across his front door: "Unfit for human habitation." He had until July 15 to correct the "excessive clutter and unsanitary condition" or risk having the property condemned.

Pierson says the notice came as a surprise: He'd not been forewarned about the walk-through, and in turn hadn't made arrangements to be present. When he contacted the inspections department on July 10, he says he learned that the staffer who'd issued the condemnation notice, Jody Waulters, hadn't actually been inside the house. (Waulters declined to comment for this story.) Instead, says Waulters's supervisor, Jim Strong, she'd waited out front while an officer from the MPD's Community Crime Prevention/SAFE program went in to look around and snap photos--shots (now on file at the inspections department) that show overturned cat litter boxes, strewn clothing, a bass amp, and stacks of computer monitors and hard drives. Pierson says he obtained the equipment legally, but suspects that police may now regard it as evidence of criminal activity.

Strong emphasizes that housing inspectors "must have consent to go in, either by the tenant or the owner. [But] if a reputable person"--in this case, he says, a police officer--"has been in there and seen the situation, then we can condemn the house based on his report." City officials say they've encouraged this kind of cooperation between police and housing inspectors in hopes of ridding neighborhoods of "problem houses." But critics say the process allows government to target anyone, for just about anything, with little regard for due process.

In punk-rock circles, Pierson is known as Spitball. He's also got a reputation as a serious junk dealer--punk-rock's version of Fred Sanford. "I buy and sell surplus equipment and shelving," he says, acknowledging that though he rarely spends the night there he often uses his house on the 3200 block of Grand Avenue for storage.

Three years ago, Pierson received a bill for $1,100 after the city hauled away a load of pallets and miscellany from behind his house in response to a neighbor's complaints. There have been quarrels since: "I'm not familiar with John Pierson, but we had a problem with that property," says block-club head Michael Montrose. "We believe, but we cannot say for sure, that they were running an illegal chop shop back there. They were bringing in cars, parts, and working on automobiles in the middle of the night. But they quit, so we quit complaining."

Pierson acknowledges that he has had his share of run-ins with neighbors, adding that over the past couple of years CCP/SAFE officers have regularly happened by to check on the doings in his yard and garage. Since then, he's tried to keep the exterior of his place in good shape: Just last week the property sported pink flowers in full bloom by the front door, and the lawn was freshly mowed.

As for just how Minneapolis police came to enter Pierson's house in June, Lt. Mark Ellenberg, who supervises the 5th Precinct's CCP/SAFE unit, says that officer John Holthusen simply invited himself in. (Holthusen and his civilian partner, Dan Niziolek, also declined to comment for this story.)

"They knocked a bunch of times and announced themselves," Ellenberg explains. "Because the door was ajar and no one was in there, [Holthusen] went in to check the house. And when he was in there, he evidently took a few pictures in regards to housing inspections." Except for these photos, Ellenberg continues, the MPD has no record of the visit. "We frequently take actions that we don't make files on," he notes. "Every day, most cops do eight hours of work. They may assist Housing, they may assist other departments, but they don't create a file on it. Frequently the police go out with inspections for extra safety."

When asked about this case's "exigent circumstances"--a term one precinct supervisor used to explain Holthusen's entering the home without Pierson's consent--Ellenberg says, "I don't know exactly what was going through the officer's mind. I know that the door was unsecured, but to tell you the truth, I think this is a gray area."

Dick Frase, a University of Minnesota law professor who specializes in criminal procedure, agrees that by entering Pierson's house uninvited and without a warrant, the officers were dipping into legally murky waters. "'Exigent circumstances' implies an emergency situation, where the police must act immediately and they don't have the time to get a warrant," he says. "If the police say that Pierson reported that someone was trying to burn his house down, the police could have probable cause to enter Pierson's home. But that reasoning seems thin."

Frase also notes that once officers gain entry, they're able to conduct comprehensive searches with little constraint. "If they say they were worried that [Pierson] was inside, injured or dead, they can look anywhere for him," he says. "At that time, they can also see housing violations. The police are in the business of being suspicious, and they will look at anything that draws their attention."

Such an unimpeded approach to the search of private residences--a rising percentage of them conducted at the behest of other city departments--comes at a time when former MPD police chief Tony Bouza and a chorus of citizens'-rights groups are raising serious questions about CCP/SAFE's effectiveness as a policing tool and the constitutionality of its tactics.

"We're very pro-police, but we don't like them using housing inspections to do police work," says Charlie Disney, executive director of the Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee. "Instead of prosecuting people they suspect of criminal activity, the police move them out and use the housing inspections to cut off complaints from neighbors. This pits neighbor against neighbor and doesn't solve the problem."

With less than a week to go before the July 15 deadline, the interior of Pierson's house remained a mess of clothing, boxes, and junk--though he says the only evidence of "unsanitary conditions" was a litter box filled to capacity with the feces of his three cats. "Yes, that was gross," Pierson concedes. "I needed to clean that up."

Which he did, along with some general tidying--dirty socks, piles of junk, ashtrays. Now, a full month later, Pierson claims he's called the inspections department several times to arrange for a follow-up visit, during which he's hoping to earn a good-housekeeping stamp of approval and cancel the standing cleanup order. But he says the department has yet to send anyone out--leaving the fate of his house on hold and Pierson regretting ever calling the police about the break-in, for which no one has yet been arrested.

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