Red Tag Blues

The ACLU takes the city to court over its practice of red tagging homes after noise complaints

A half-crushed McMuffin box skitters along the street, and two breezy old mesquites rustle slightly on an otherwise quiet fall morning.

Such quiet can be a very good thing.

But occasionally, too much of a good thing is simply too much, says Mike Haggerty. Sometimes, his middle-class street near the UA is almost like a Bewitched re-run, with nosy neighbor Gladys Kravitz snooping through fluttering window shades.

For Haggerty, however, sneaky neighbors became more than a small-screen fantasy when the house he rented to his daughter and granddaughter received a latter-day scarlet letter--an infamous red tag pasted by police on party pads.

His granddaughter was recently killed in a car accident. But in happier times, only a year ago, Kinzie Haggerty was planning a 16th birthday bash. And she aimed to do the right thing. "Kinzie and (her mother) Shannon circulated a letter through the neighborhood, telling neighbors that they were going to have a party," Mike Haggerty says. "They gave everyone their phone number, asking that if there were any problems, to please call them."

The party kicked-off at 9 p.m. Ten minutes later, someone did call. But the number they dialed was 911.

"The cops didn't show up for a half-hour," says Haggerty, a former city councilman. "But they did show up."

And police proceeded to place a big red tag on the front window. That means no parties--or groups larger than five people--can occur on the property for 180 days. One would think this might preclude family dinners on Sunday, Haggerty says. "At least that's the way I read it."

Coincidentally, Haggerty also sits on the Southern Arizona board of the American Civil Liberties Union, which happens to a very busy group these days. Nonetheless, "the next thing I know, I got a call from the Phoenix office, and they asked me if I'd like to be a plaintiff over the red tag incident," he says.

As a result, the ACLU has filed suit on his behalf. The red tag is violation of Haggerty's right to due process, says Angie Polizzi, staff attorney for the ACLU of Arizona. In other words, he's being punished with a scarlet letter before enjoying his date in court. "And we think it's harassment, trying to impose responsibility on landlords, who really aren't responsible" for parties on their property, Polizzi says. "The police can always cite somebody for disturbing the peace. But to go after the landlord ... then the red tag stays on the property for 180 days--even if the tenant who caused the problem moves out."

She calls the red tag ordinance "a knee-jerk reaction. Thecity passed this without really looking at the ramifications. (If the city) would allow a hearing before a house is red-tagged, we probably wouldn't even bring a lawsuit. My hope is that after we file this, I can talk with someone at the city and get them to change the ordinance. And then we'll dismiss the lawsuit."

Fat chance, says City Attorney Mike Rankin. "Landlords have several opportunities to contest the posting of a red tag. The landlord is given notification by mail of hearing rights. They can contest it, and there are situations when the red tags have been removed."

Rankin compares it to "building violations, or housing-code violations, such as abandoned structures where homeless people are living, those kind of properties." The city "will put up a notice prohibiting entry, then the owner gets a period of time" to contest or remedy the situation. Red tagging a house is "a similar a nuisance violation, with a similar process," he says.

In this case, Mike Haggerty's family did take their case to court. "But the caller was anonymous," says Mimi Haggerty, his wife. "We had no way to face our accuser." And in the end, she says, the red tag stuck.

For their part, cops call red tags a potent tool in their arsenal to quiet down uproarious college parties. "It's extremely effective," says Sgt. Marco Borboa of the Tucson Police Department. "It's the No. 1 way to address the problem of unruly parties."

Nor is the practice new. Tucson's unruly party ordinance dates back to 1996, when the City Council imposed a 120-day red tag on offending properties, with subsequent and graduating fines if problems continued. Last February, the council bumped that up to 180 days, and allowed officers to issue a $100 citation on the first visit. If there are further offenses--such as having more than five people at the party house over those six months--fines can reach $1,000.

But aside from legal tussles--and despite police assertions--the effectiveness of red-tagging is far from certain. Beyond the temptation for over use, the tags are also becoming status symbols among some college kids. "It's like the hot accessory for campus homes," says one writer in the Arizona Daily Wildcat. "But seriously folks, that fluorescent ... paper posted on doors and windows signals to the police that should they encounter any future 'problems' at that residence (where 'problems' probably means kids being kids on a Friday night), everyone present would face hefty consequences. But to passers-by, the red tag simply signals 'party house' or 'fun times found here.'"

Fun times or not, Mike Haggerty knows of better paths towards peace and quiet than the indiscriminate use of red tags--such as simple civility. "We have college kids in our neighborhood," he says, "and sometimes, you grin and bear it. And sometimes, I go over and say, 'Hey, it's late; we need our sleep, and we'd appreciate if you could cool down. And they do. I think that's the way to handle it.

"In our case, the neighbors had their choice. They could call my daughter or call 911."

They chose the scarlet letter.

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