City of Duluth asks court to shut down Last Place on Earth (w/ video)The city of Duluth stepped up its efforts Thursday to deal with complaints about the crowds of people flocking daily to purchase synthetic drugs at the Last Place on Earth.
By: Peter Passi, Duluth News Tribune
The city of Duluth stepped up its efforts Thursday to deal with complaints about the crowds of people flocking daily to purchase synthetic drugs at the Last Place on Earth.
A complaint was filed Thursday in Minnesota’s 6th District Court on owner Jim Carlson, notifying him that city prosecutors could seek to shut down his shop at 120 E. Superior St. because of the public nuisance it has created.
Duluth has filed for a court injunction that could put Carlson out of business, at least temporarily, as the case is heard. The city of Duluth requested an Oct. 29 hearing on its motion for a temporary injunction.
Carlson could not be reached by cell phone Thursday and his voicemail box was full.
Carlson’s attorney, Randall Tigue, said his client was out of state on a hunting trip and had not yet been served any papers, nor had Tigue himself seen the complaint.
But Tigue maintains the city has no legitimate legal basis for its complaint.
“The state statute on public nuisance creates three things as a public nuisance: either prostitution, gambling or illegal drug sales. And they don’t have any of those,” he said.
Duluth Assistant City Attorney Nathan LaCoursiere questioned Tigue’s interpretation of the law, saying: “I believe Mr. Tigue is taking an intentionally narrow view of the law.”
Citing Minnesota statute, LaCoursiere said: “A public nuisance is ‘Any condition which unreasonably annoys, injures or endangers the safety, health, morals, comfort or repose of any considerable number of members of the public.’ “
If the city is successful in its efforts to crack down on the head shop, state law indicates the owner of a nuisance property could be enjoined from using it for any purpose for one year. The building is owned by JRC Enterprises Inc., an entity that lists Carlson as its CEO.
The city first gave written notice of its public nuisance complaint to Carlson on Aug. 7, giving him 30 days to resolve issues at the Last Place on Earth. But LaCoursiere said Carlson has made no apparent effort to meet with city officials to address public concerns.
The nuisance notice laid out a laundry list of issues with the shop.
It reads: “The public nuisance maintained and permitted at Last Place on Earth and the historic district surrounding it, as defined in Minnesota Statute, includes: the sale of harmful and mood-altering synthetic drugs; the permission of assemblies blocking safe and secure citizen access to the streets, sidewalks and businesses surrounding Last Place on Earth; the daily disturbance of the neighborhood encompassing Duluth’s historic downtown district; the permission of disorderly conduct; the sale of synthetic drugs from bulk without the use of proper measurement devices; and the sale of synthetic drugs in packages lacking adequate consumer notice and warning.”
Simply put, LaCoursiere said: “What this lawsuit is about is bringing basic sanity back to our Old Downtown.”
But Tigue said the state nuisance law spells out a clear set of expectations that are missing in the city’s case against the Last Place on Earth.
“It requires that you give notice and then 30 days to abate the nuisance. But you can’t possibly abate the nuisance if you don’t know what it is you’re doing that’s illegal, and the city refuses even to release test results to determine whether anything he’s selling is illegal,” he said.
“How can you abate a nuisance when the city won’t even tell you what conduct they claim is illegal? It’s absolute nonsense, and any lawyer who filed it ought to be ashamed of himself,” Tigue said.
If Carlson was unclear about the city’s nuisance concerns and how to address them, LaCoursiere said he had only to sit down with someone from the city attorney’s office. LaCoursiere said that’s why the law provides for a 30-day window.
“It’s our understanding that Mr. Tigue advised his client to ignore our notice of public nuisance. And that put us in the position where we are today,” he said.
The city contends it must act to protect public safety.
“Since 2010, we’ve seen a steady increase in our calls for service to that block,” said Duluth Police Lt. Eric Rish. Some of those calls have involved violent crime, such as assaults, but many more involved complaints about disruptive behavior, panhandling or people obstructing sidewalks in front of the Last Place on Earth.
“One of our issues of concern is the inability of people to walk from one end of the block to the other without being harassed,” LaCoursiere said.
Rish said calls for service on the block went from eight in July 2010 to 60 in July 2011 and 101 in July 2012.
Both the city and the state have attempted to ban the sale of synthetic drugs to little effect, as manufacturers have reformulated their products to skirt the law.
“I sympathize with the other business owners on that block who had hoped new laws would be the solution,” Rish said. “The slow speed this has been going has been painful for everyone.”
The Last Place on Earth was raided by police in September 2011, resulting in the seizure of property and cash. Federal authorities conducted a subsequent raid in July of this year.
No charges have resulted from either raid.
Tigue suggested that if Carlson had been selling illegal drugs he would have been charged by now. He characterized the nuisance complaint as “an absolute act of desperation.”
“They’ve harassed him from day one,” Tigue said.
Beginning in November, the Police Department assigned a special detail to help deal with people congregating on the block. Police have been assigned to baby-sit the block during the Last Place on Earth’s peak traffic periods and after hours, when problem behavior has occurred in the past. LaCoursiere said that detail has already cost the city more than $100,000.
He noted that sum doesn’t include the cost of responding to multiple calls throughout the city related to the use of synthetic marijuana or “incense.” These products are sold under the guise that they are not for human consumption, but it is often used to achieve a powerful high.
“This case is not about the legality of these drugs. It’s about the impact these drugs are having on our community,” LaCoursiere said.
He noted that many users of the substances suffer adverse impacts, including elevated heart rates, severe sweats, acute anxiety and psychological problems such as psychosis. Sometimes users become agitated or belligerent and require restraint, as they can pose a danger to themselves or others.
“People are really playing Russian roulette day in and day out when they use these products. They don’t know the chemical dosage they’re getting or how they will react,” LaCoursiere said.
Carlson told CNBC’s Crime Inc. program this summer that he was making about $16,000 a day from sales of synthetic drugs and expected to clear nearly $6 million a year from the products.
While Carlson profits, LaCoursiere said the community is left to bear the significant social and financial costs of the resulting drug use.