When preparing to take action in response to a complaint of an ordinance violation (zoning or otherwise) for which a formal hearing is required, here are some helpful tips ordinance enforcement officers should follow to ensure your civil infractions are upheld in court.
1. Conduct a thorough investigation and photograph the violation.
Before issuing a citation, the enforcement officer should visit the property, take date-stamped photographs of each violation, and pull property tax records to verify the identity of the property owner. The dates and a summary of all visits to the property, as well as any conversations with the property owner or others involved in the matter should be memorialized in writing.
2. Send written notice to the property owner.
Judges generally like to see local governments provide notice to property owners of ordinance violations and give them an opportunity to comply with the ordinance before any citations are issued. Therefore, if an ordinance enforcement officer is satisfied that a violation exists, he/she should prepare a letter notifying the property owner of the specific provisions being violated, including the language of those provisions, and provide the property owner with a reasonable but specified amount of time to remedy the violation(s). The letter should also explain that failure to bring the property into compliance with the ordinance by the specified date will result in further enforcement action, including a citation for a civil infraction.
3. Completely and accurately fill out the citation.
If the violation is not remedied by the date specified in the notification letter discussed above, the ordinance enforcement officer should fill out an approved municipal civil infraction citation form. We recommend the State of Michigan Uniform Law Citation UC-01b forms. The box labeled C.I. (Civil Infraction) should be checked and the following information must be included:
- The name and address of the alleged violator;
- The date of the violation;
- The address and location of the property where the violation occurred;
- The civil infraction being cited including the specific section numbers of the ordinance the violator is being cited under;
- A brief description of the violation(s);
- Indication that a “formal hearing is required;” and
- The signature and date of the ordinance enforcement officer.
Additional photographs should also be taken on the date of the violation indicated on the civil infraction citation. This is important because courts look only to whether the property in question was in violation of the ordinance on the date indicated on the citation, not the dates leading up to the citation.
4. Make sure the citation is properly served on the property owner.
Proper service is crucial. If a citation is not properly served and the violator fails to appear in court (which is common), the judge may dismiss the citation. Proper service can be accomplished in one of two ways:
(1) The citation may be personally served by the ordinance enforcement officer to the individual named on the citation.
(2) The citation may be posted at the property AND mailed to the owner’s last known address by first class mail.
Whichever method of service is used, the correct box must be checked on the citation form and the citation must be signed by the officer issuing and serving the citation.
If these steps are followed, it will expedite the formal hearing process and ensure citations are not dismissed on technicalities or for procedural deficiencies. If you have any questions about specific citations or ordinance enforcement actions in general, please contact your Mika Meyers attorney directly.