Hoarder's Eviction Didn't Violate Rights, Judge Rules
Thursday, July 27, 2006
Sam Shipkovitz first railed against what he called Arlington's "neatness police" when officers declared his condo a fire hazard because it was crammed with too much of his stuff. They locked him out. So he sued the Arlington County hoarding task force in federal court, saying his civil rights were violated.
Now, a federal judge has dismissed his case.
County officials, stung by the publicity Shipkovitz's hoarding case generated, hailed the decision. "Every count was found to be without merit," Arlington spokeswoman Mary Curtius said.
The case was always a little unusual.
It all started in 1996. That's when Shipkovitz, who has a PhD in electrical engineering as well as a law degree and was working as a patent lawyer, moved into the Crystal City condominium owned by his friend Stephen Crossan. Crossan, who worked as a patent examiner, had just been found not guilty by reason of insanity of an arson charge and was committed to a state mental institution.
He was released in 2004 and came back to the condo to live with Shipkovitz. Mental health workers visited Crossan daily. It was one of those workers who in October became alarmed at the massive amount of junk in the condo -- paper, boxes, bags, newspapers, trash -- and called the fire marshal.
In his lawsuit, Shipkovitz contended that when the fire inspectors showed up Oct. 20, they were trespassing. Shipkovitz wrote that Crossan had opened the door only for the mental health social worker and didn't realize what was happening.
"They didn't have a warrant. My room had 'No Trespassing' signs," Shipkovitz said. "So even if they had permission, which they didn't, they didn't have any permission to go into my bedroom."
The county countered that Crossan willingly opened the door to the inspectors. U.S. District Judge Claude M. Hilton, in his June 22 order, agreed: "There is no evidence that they engaged in any misconduct or violated any law while performing said inspection."
Shipkovitz's case has generated considerable publicity as cities and counties become more densely crowded and local officials see hoarding not as private, eccentric behavior, but as a public nuisance. While taking depositions, Shipkovitz discovered that, including himself, the Arlington hoarding task force had locked 18 people out of their homes in the past year.
Task force officials, who are becoming more aggressive in dealing with hoarders as the area becomes more urbanized, say huge accumulations of junk are a fire hazard. But property rights advocates have declared that enforcement is uneven at best and invasive at worst.
In the past, hoarders were found out only when someone called to complain. Now, task force members -- officials who work in fire prevention, code inspection and mental health and elder care -- are often on the lookout for potential hoarders. To confirm their suspicions, they have to ask for a homeowner's permission to go inside. If they are refused but have sufficient evidence, they can get a search warrant from a magistrate.
In his lawsuit, Shipkovitz also charged county officials with "intentional business interference" for locking him out of the condo and keeping him from his patent attorney business. However, fire marshals allowed Shipkovitz into the condo four or five times for a total of 17 hours, Hilton wrote.
By December, Crossan's family had become involved, asking fire marshals to stop letting Shipkovitz in. In February, the family hired a moving company to relocate Shipkovitz's junk to two storage units.
Hilton ruled that any complaint Shipkovitz may have about his business being hurt should be addressed to Crossan, the owner of the condo, not the county.
In the Washington region, a recent survey by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments showed that local officials found about 300 homes of hoarders last year that violated building, fire, animal control or property maintenance codes.
Since Oct. 20, when the fire marshal ordered the locks changed and the condo condemned, Shipkovitz has been staying at a warehouse he owns in the District or living with a friend who has collecting issues of his own. "He doesn't want anyone to know where he lives," Shipkovitz said. "He's afraid he'll be raided, too, and end up on the street. He knows my life has been destroyed."