JONESBORO — Undercover investigations revealed that a man living in an upscale neighborhood had been selling drugs out of the home, police testified at a recent hearing.
The city and the man’s landlord seek to remove the tenant, Willis Hooks, in separate lawsuits in Craighead County Circuit Court.
City officials filed suit Aug. 12, seeking an order of abatement for 900 Melton Drive, off of Southwest Drive, claiming it is a public nuisance. Jeff Brown, owner of the property, is the defendant.
Brown, in turn, filed an unlawful detainer suit, seeking a court order for Hooks to leave after he reportedly ignored a notice to vacate.
Typically, under a criminal abatement, convicted felons are not allowed onto the property, which would mean Hooks would have to go. City officials want the the two-story, 4,200-square-foot residence boarded up, as well as signs posted.
Chris Jester, attorney for Brown, argues Brown has grounds for eviction based on the simple fact that the city has filed the abatement suit, even though Hooks has faithfully made his monthly payments.
“The statute does not require that the abatement action filed by the City be ultimately successful, only that the property is subject to abatement,” Jester wrote in a brief following a hearing on the matter.
Hooks has lived in the house since 2014 under a lease purchase agreement, according to court documents.
Attorney R. Scott Troutt, in documents filed Friday, argued the crimes attributed to Hooks happened years ago, beyond the three-year statute of limitations for abatement cases.
“First, there is no evidence of controlled substances on the property in the past few years,” Troutt wrote. “The only piece of evidence presented was that of a ‘white powdery substance’ found in Mr. Hooks’ trash can. Sales and arrests occurring in 2018, to the extent that they are not barred by the general statute of limitations, were carried out at the behest of a State entity, with the apparent cooperation of the City. The remaining crimes complained of are not relevant to the statute.
“Second, even if the City’s argument that the sales in 2018 fall under the statute, they occurred years ago. The present-tense nature of the statute does not provide relief in that instance, nor is an injunction appropriate against a condition that no longer exists.”
During a five-hour hearing on Sept. 2, Circuit Judge Pam Honeycutt heard testimony that Investigator Chris Lane of the 2nd Judicial District Drug Task Force used a confidential informant to buy narcotics at the house in late 2016. After he was arrested, Hooks became an informant to avoid prosecution and arranged a drug buy and subsequent arrest of another dealer.
More recently, on July 1, three people, including Hooks, were arrested following a probation search in which officers found methamphetamine and other narcotics. Hook was arrested July 29 on a warrant charging him with violating felony probation in a Greene County case, and on July 31, another man, who didn’t live there, was arrested on a warrant charging him with failing to register as a sex offender.
City Attorney Carol Duncan said in her post-hearing brief the neighborhood needs protection.
“The neighbors on Melton testified that they observe the excessive amount of both vehicular and foot traffic that comes and goes at all hours of the day and night at 900 Melton,” Duncan wrote. “They testified that they are afraid to allow their children to play outside due to this traffic and the activities and police presence at this house.”
She noted the neighbors testified visitors left within 10 minutes of arriving.
Troutt argued that criminal abatement cases typically target organized or continuing enterprises.
“Here, the evidence is bereft of any enterprise beyond a lawnmowing service,” Troutt wrote. “To the extent that the City wishes to insinuate that Mr. Hooks is dealing drugs from his home, setting aside the fact that their evidence does not rise beyond speculation, it could simply build a case against Mr. Hooks and arrest him for that activity. This remedy exists as it always does, and the City has failed to prove that it is inadequate.”
No date has been set for a ruling by the judge.