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Cook v. Edgewood Management Corporation

June 12, 2003

TUWANA COOK, APPELLANT,
v.
EDGEWOOD MANAGEMENT CORPORATION, APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (LT-5697-00) (Hon. Geoffrey M. Alprin Trial Judge)

Before Ruiz and Reid, Associate Judges, and Ferren, Senior Judge

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reid, Associate Judge

Argued January 24, 2002

This case concerns a complaint filed by the landlord, appellee Edgewood Management Corp. ("Edgewood") to evict appellant Tuwana Cook, her children and grandchildren, from an apartment unit in a District of Columbia housing complex located in a neighborhood with a reputation for substantial drug activity. The complaint was based on the District of Columbia Residential Drug-Related Evictions Act of 1990 ("the RDEA"), and a federal regulation concerning drug-related criminal activity in federally subsidized housing. After the jury returned a verdict in favor of the landlord, the trial court entered an order granting judgment for possession to Edgewood. Ms. Cook filed a timely appeal. We affirm the judgment of the trial court. We conclude that Ms. Cook received timely notice under the RDEA, and that the notice provided sufficient specificity to allow her to prepare a defense. Furthermore, we hold that the trial court properly concluded that the landlord presented sufficient evidence to allow the case to go to the jury; that under the circumstances of this case, the trial court did not err in refusing to compel the disclosure of the special employee's identity; that the trial court properly admitted into evidence, in this civil case, the results of cobalt field tests conducted by the investigators, based upon their testimony and the routine use of the test by the MPD for years prior to Ms. Cook's trial.

FACTUAL SUMMARY

According to testimony presented to the jury in this case, Ms. Cook had been residing in a District of Columbia multi-building apartment complex in the Northeast quadrant of the District of Columbia for sixteen years. Ms. Cook occupied a four bedroom apartment in the complex, known as Brookland Manor, with her two daughters, Lawann Spencer, age 31 and Tawala Spencer, 29 years of age, and their eight children, ranging in ages from 3 to 14 years.

Brookland Manor had been plagued by drug activity, at least since 1997. In July 1999, Metropolitan Police Department ("MPD") Investigator Steven Manley moved into an apartment unit at Brookland Manor in order to investigate narcotics trafficking, particularly in the building where Ms. Cook resided. He was assisted by other MPD investigators, Frank Magda and Raymond Stargel. The investigators were involved in organizing controlled purchases of drugs from Ms. Cook's apartment.

The controlled purchases were made by a civilian informant known as a "special employee." The first controlled purchase occurred prior to October 1999, and produced no evidence used in this case. The second controlled purchase by the special employee occurred on or around October 30, 1999. The special employee went to Ms. Cook's apartment and returned with a small bag of a white rock substance that, according to a police field test, contained a quantity of cocaine.

After the controlled purchase, Investigator Magda obtained a search warrant for Ms. Cook's apartment. While executing the search warrant on November 2, 1999, police officers found a sandwich bag containing forty ziplock bags of a white rock substance in the apartment. A police field test revealed that the substance in the bags contained cocaine. Three individuals were arrested as a result of the seizure of the forty ziplock bags of the white rock substance, including one of Ms. Cook's daughters, later identified as Lawann Spencer. *fn1

Another controlled purchase took place in April 2000. The special employee entered Ms. Cook's building and returned with two green ziplock bags of a white rock substance. A field test revealed the presence of cocaine.

A final search of Ms. Cook's apartment, pursuant to a warrant, occurred on Friday, July 28, 2000. Investigator Stargel, who had been involved in several searches of Ms. Cook's apartment and apartment building, including that in November 1999 which resulted in the seizure of cocaine, was assigned to the search team. He found a homemade crack pipe in a purse in Ms. Cook's apartment.

On February 11, 2000, Edgewood served a complaint on Ms. Cook seeking to regain possession of the apartment she occupied because of the drug activity. The case was tried before a jury in August 2000. Investigators Magda, Manley and Stargel were the main witnesses for Edgewood. Two witnesses testified for the defense, Tawala Spencer and Ms. Cook. Tawala Spencer denied any knowledge of drug activity in her mother's apartment. Ms. Cook maintained that she was not at home during the searches of her apartment, that she generally left the apartment at 7:30 a.m. and did not return until 9 or 10 at night, that she had never been arrested, and was unaware of any drug activity in the apartment. She asserted that she did not supervise her daughters since they were grown. She acknowledged on cross-examination that "[her] lease still obligate[d] [her] to take responsibility for [her] family members," but maintained that the situation was different because her children were now adults, and they paid the rent.

The jury found in appellee Edgewood's favor after answering nine questions on a special verdict form, which included questions relating to the RDEA, and Ms. Cook's potential defenses under the RDEA, and the federal regulation. In pertinent part, the jury "f[ou]nd by a preponderance of the evidence that the tenant, [a] member of the tenant's household, or . . . guests or other person under the tenant's control, engaged in drug related criminal activity on or near [Ms. Cook's] premises," and that Ms. Cook had failed to establish a valid defense. Subsequent to the jury trial, Ms. Cook and her family were evicted from her apartment.

ANALYSIS

The Notice Requirements

Ms. Cook argues that the trial court erred in failing "to dismiss the criminal activity claim for failure to comply with the appropriate notice requirements." She claims that she thought the complaint was based only on the RDEA, but discovered during the preparation of the joint pretrial statement that it also was grounded on a federal regulation. Specifically, Ms. Cook contends that Edgewood "did not notify her of the 'criminal activity' claim with sufficient specificity"; and "did not provide the thirty-day notice required under federal regulation and [District] law for a claim of that type." Edgewood asserts that its "notice provided sufficient information for [Ms. Cook] to prepare a defense," and that it was timely.

We are presented with an issue requiring the interpretation of the RDEA. Therefore, we review the matter de novo. In re Estate of Louise Green, 816 A.2d 14, 16 (D.C. 2003) (citations omitted). In interpreting statutory or regulatory provisions, we look first to the plain meaning. See J. Parreco & Son v. Rental Hous. Comm'n, 567 A.2d 43, 45 (D.C. 1989).

D.C. Code § 45-2559.2 (a) (1996), now codified as § 42-3602 (a) (2001), provides in pertinent part: "[A] housing provider may commence an action to recover possession of a rental unit . . . . The recovery . . . shall be ordered if the Superior Court of the District of

Columbia . . . has determined by a preponderance of the evidence that the rental unit is a drug haven . . . ." Notice to the tenant is required. Section 45-2559.2 (b), now codified as § 42-3602 (b), specifies that: "A notice of the action shall be served upon the tenant or occupant and housing provider at least 5 days prior to a hearing."

There is no thirty-day notice requirement in the RDEA. Indeed, the plain meaning of § 45-2559.2 (b) leaves no doubt that a landlord seeking to recover possession of a rental unit under the RDEA must provide only five days notice to the tenant prior to the hearing on the complaint. Ms. Cook was served with Edgewood's "Notice to Quit and Vacate For Maintaining Drug Haven and Termination Notice" on January 12, 2000. The notice gave Ms. Cook ten, rather than the minimally required five days notice. And, Edgewood's complaint for possession was not filed until February 7, 2000. Hence, there can be no doubt that notice was timely under the RDEA. *fn2

Nor can there be any doubt that Ms. Cook was put on notice concerning a violation of the RDEA. The notice to quit stated in pertinent part: "The tenant, authorized occupants or invitees are using the rental unit as a Drug Haven in violation of D.C. Code ยง 45-2559.1, et seq. of the Drug Related Evictions Act of 1980"; and that these individuals were "engaged in illegal drug activity in or around the property." Furthermore, the notice mentioned the November 1999 search warrant, the seizure of cocaine from Ms. Cook's apartment, and the arrest of Ms. Spencer and two other individuals. Under the ...


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