Hassled by The Man

When city inspectors attack!

It all started, Jim and Dawn Davis recalled, when a high-and-mighty man who lives a few blocks over supposedly took it upon himself to play community cop.

The neighbor in question complained to zoning officials that the Davises often have what, for all intents and purposes, looks like a semi parked in their driveway--a no-no in a residential area. However, several parts that are commonly used in a commercial truck have been removed from this vehicle, while so-called "life-support systems" found in an RV--such as heating and cooling controls, a refrigerator and a small toilet--were added.

The Davises, who obviously love their computers, vehicles and gadgets, use the converted semi to pull their fifth-wheel trailer, which they take with them on trips to Mexico and California. The trailer even has space in the back for them to park a PT Cruiser inside à la Knight Rider.

But it didn't matter that the vehicle is registered as an RV in Montana to a zoning inspector from the city's Department of Neighborhood Resources. And that's when the inspector went to excessive lengths in an attempt to nail them to the wall, the Davises said.

The couple accuses the inspector of skulking around their property near Pima Street and Swan Road to take photos of other things he could write them up for after Jim protested a notice of violation over the converted semi. A friend and neighbor, Lloyd Leeper, said he noticed the inspector, Rick Mendoza, acting suspiciously near a rear wall of the Davis residence one day. The inspector was standing in the gravel driveway belonging to the people who live next door to the Davises.

"I saw the guy walk up the driveway ... because my dogs started raising hell, and lately, we've had a lot of shit get stolen around here," Leeper said, adding that the man was using a camera to take pictures over the wall.

Mendoza then slapped the Davises with five city code violations, including outdoor electrical sockets that aren't up to regulatory snuff. The problem Jim had with these violations is that the sockets don't appear to be readily viewable from over the nearly 6-foot-tall wall surrounding his backyard.

Furthermore, Dawn said some of the pictures the inspector took--which they've been told have been destroyed after the Davises complained--looked as if he had actually been on their property. She worried about her son playing in the backyard.

Jim perceived the citations as a retaliatory measure, further alleging that Mendoza told him he was going to hit them with everything he could.

"It's not his job," Jim said. "His job is to come out and respond to complaints. There was a complaint on the truck--the truck wasn't in the backyard. There are no complaints on anything in my backyard. So you tell me, was he punishing me? Was he harassing me?"

According to Jim, officials with the city have claimed that inspectors have the right to make observations that any member of the public could make in the course of everyday business. Such business could include knocking on a front door, for example.

But to Jim, the suspicious actions witnessed by Leeper were trespassing, so he got a restraining order against Mendoza.

The inspector's supervisors at the Department of Neighborhood Resources didn't immediately return phone calls. However, the Weekly did talk to Tucson City Attorney Mike Rankin, who was made familiar with the case after Jim contacted him. He said the Davises may not have an expectation of privacy in their backyard, depending on the circumstances in which the inspector took the photos.

"Zoning inspectors and other code officials of the city are subject to the Constitution just like everybody else--just like police officers," he said. "What the Constitution protects is places where you have an expectation of privacy. What that generally means is in your home, in your fenced-in yard, etc. But certainly inspectors, without getting too specific in any case, can make observations or take photos from the street, from an adjoining property where they have permission to be. Anywhere the mailman can go, the inspector can go. They can look through fences; they can look over fences."

Rankin also dismissed Jim's assertions that because his converted semi is registered as an RV in Montana, it can legally be parked in a Tucson residential area.

"He's not receiving any kind of notice based on a licensing violation; he's receiving a notice based on the application of our zoning laws, which use a different definition," Rankin said. "Within the definition in our code, the vehicle in question is a commercial motor vehicle."

The Davises aren't allowing this piece of news to stop them. They had a meeting with City Councilwoman Nina Trasoff on Monday evening, Dec. 4. Originally, Jim had invited the Weekly to sit in, but he said Trasoff's office told him she wouldn't attend if we did.

Trasoff later clarified her position, insisting that she never banned the media from anything.

"It was a surprise--that's all," she said. "First of all, do you think I would be stupid enough to think I could ban you guys from something? Secondly, given my background as a reporter, I would never try to ban a reporter from anything. I simply asked him what his intention was, because it caught me off guard that he was bringing reporters to this meeting, when I thought our purpose in meeting was in trying to resolve the issue. That's certainly not to say that it can't be resolved with you there, but you do understand that it can change the tenor of the conversation."

Jim continues to press his case with city officials, some of whom seemed either bemused or exasperated by the whole affair when contacted by the Weekly. One official, who has access to zoning records, said a new inspector had been assigned to the Davises.

And Jim is hopeful that his councilwoman will lend a hand: "Trasoff, I think, is going to try and get this all thrown out."

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