A south Morgan Hill family remains at odds with local police and neighbors over the presence of military trucks, vintage cars and other prohibited vehicles parked at their residence.
While police have decided to respond by investigating all complaints of municipal code violations at the Katz family’s home on Fleet Count Court, residents Gary Katz and his son Jesse maintain that the city’s policies are unfair, arbitrary and vague.
“I have instructed the officers to respond based on complaints, and if they’re in violation to issue a citation if that’s appropriate,” said MHPD Capt. Shane Palsgrove.
Even as MHPD Chief David Swing determined there was no “public nuisance” at the Katz home four months after officers cited them for parking three “abandoned, wrecked, dismantled or inoperative vehicles” in their driveway, an officer responded to the home June 21 to issue parking citations for two different vehicles parked on an “unimproved surface” on the property.
The family owns a collection of antique, historic and military vehicles, which they restore as a hobby. According to the city’s municipal code and enforcement officers, these allegedly unregistered, abandoned, oversized or inoperable vehicles that cannot be parked anywhere in Morgan Hill, even on private property, unless they are obstructed by a fence, garage or similar structure.
Dating back to May 2014, police and city staff have visited the Katz property or contacted them at least a dozen times to notify them of the violations and advise them to comply with the municipal code.
“We have tried to work with (the Katz family) in the spirit of the law to find solutions, to be met with resistance to the point where the only thing left to do now is enforce the law and issue (them) a citation when we receive complaints,” Palsgrove added.
MHPD Sgt. Mario Ramirez sent an email to patrol officers June 5 advising them to always respond to complaints with more than one officer due to the Katz’ “anti-police” stance, although no violence or threat of violence has been cited.
Palsgrove said there are multiple reasons for Ramirez’ directive: The Katz family believes the police department is violating their constitutional rights, police have no right to be on their property and don’t have the right to enforce the municipal code. Furthermore, Palsgrove noted that Jesse Katz was once arrested in Barstow for obstructing or delaying an officer.
But the Barstow Police Department’s case, which started with Jesse and his brother Rob Katz’ arrest last year, did not result in a conviction and the charge was dropped November 2014. The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, which fought the charges on behalf of the brothers, reached a settlement with the city of Barstow a few months after the Katz’ were arrested for refusing to identify themselves. The Katz’ were awarded $30,000 in damages, and Barstow agreed to update its training policies to inform police that detained subjects are not required to show identification.
Jesse Katz said the fact that MHPD mentioned his “wrongful” arrest in Barstow as a reason to take extra caution shows how “vindictive and malicious” police can be. And it demonstrates a pattern of harassment by police—including Santa Clara County deputies—toward the family.
“They are our enemies,” Jesse said. “They don’t come to do me any favors, or serve me in any way but to limit the freedoms I have. I am absolutely respectful of any type of law enforcement officer I encounter, and I comply with any kind of lawful request that’s made of me. But beyond that, I want to keep my interaction with them to a minimum.”
Palsgrove denied any police harassment, and noted that officers have tried for months to amicably convince the Katz’ to comply with the city ordinance without issuing citations.
“We have not one time responded proactively or without a complaint to issue a citation,” Palsgrove said.
Hearing process unfair?
On Feb. 26, following numerous these complaints from neighbors, the city cited Katz for parking three inoperable vehicles in their driveway: a Sunbeam Tiger, Chevrolet pickup and “military style semi truck.”
The city’s code allows the alleged offender to request a review hearing—which is like an appeal—with the chief of police. The Katz family requested such a hearing, which occurred April 15. A petition signed by 11 residents from 10 addresses on Fleet Count Court was presented against the Katz’ at that hearing.
The city code—section 18.48.095—says the city may seize cited vehicles if the owner doesn’t remove them within 10 days. The Katz had been previously notified they were in violation of other code sections prohibiting oversized vehicles on visible private property, as well as on city streets.
One of these ordinances even restricts vehicles such as RVs and boats, which Jesse Katz and police have said is a common violation throughout Morgan Hill, even if not all offenders get citations.
The Katz family reluctantly removed the cited vehicles before the April 15 hearing. They also think it’s unconstitutional for the police chief to be the “judge and jury” over the code his department is tasked with enforcing, property owner Gary Katz said.
“This is not justice. Where’s the impartiality here?” Katz said.
Swing said it’s not up to the police department to determine those broader issues.
“The purpose of the hearing wasn’t to speak to any constitutionality of our ordinances,” Swing told the Times shortly after the hearing. “We believe our ordinances are lawful.”
The chief’s written judgment was delivered to the Katz home June 22. Swing determined there was no longer a violation of the February citations, and no further enforcement action was necessary.
“We’re not here to tweak the police department’s nose, and taunt them in any way,” Gary Katz said. “We’re just trying to live our life here, and we’ve got some neighbors that say, ‘I don’t like what you’ve got on your property.’ They want to control everything we do.”
City Attorney Renee Gurza said citizens do have the ability to appeal a municipal code violation outside the city’s authority, but it takes a few steps. If the Katz’ had disagreed with Swing’s ruling, they could have appealed to the city council, and from there they could have appealed to Santa Clara County Superior Court.
“Internal administrative hearings are not unusual” among cities, Gurza said. “It allows a city to have an internal review of a situation, rather than having people go straight to court,” where monetary costs and inconvenience for both the defendant and the city can grow.
May 2014 to January 2015: Police and city staff visit Katz home or contact them at least a dozen times to inform them that vehicles parked on their property are in violation of municipal code sections 18.48.095, 8.22.010, 8.22.030—which prohibit oversized, unregistered, inoperable, wrecked or abandoned vehicles anywhere in the city limits, including on private property. One of the ordinances also prohibits vehicles parked on a front lawn or otherwise “unimproved surface.”
Feb. 19. 2015: Neighbors of the Katz’ signed a petition asking the city council to abate the vehicles allegedly in violation of the municipal code.
Feb. 26: MHPD Capt. Shane Palsgrove sent a letter to Gary Katz informing him that three vehicles parked on his property were in violation of the Morgan Hill municipal code. The letter states if the vehicles were not removed within 10 days, the city would remove and abate the vehicles, and the Katz could be levied a bill for the costs of the removal as well as administrative costs associated with processing the case. The Katz’ were given the option of requesting an administrative hearing with the police chief to appeal the violation.
April 11: The Katz’ removed the vehicles identified in the citation.
April 15: Formal hearing occurred. Swing notified the parties that he would notify them of his decision on the matter. The Katz family and neighboring witnesses who previously complained about the vehicles attended.
June 21: The Katz family received two parking citations for parking on their front yard, unrelated to previous citations.
June 22: Katz family received a letter from police informing them there was no longer a violation as identified in the Feb. 26 citation.