Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Using Civil Actions Against Property to Control Crime Problems

Response Guide No. 11 (2016)

by Martha J. Smith and Lorraine Mazerolle

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Introduction                                        previous page next page

What This Guide Does and Does Not Cover

This guide addresses the use of civil remedies to control and prevent crime and disorder occurring at real-property locations, such as individual addresses or geographical areas. In general, the focus of the enforcement is not usually the potential offender, but rather someone who has control over property that has been, or might be, used in the commission of a crime. The civil remedy may be used in place of—or often in tandem with—criminal penalties as a coercive incentive for the person (or business) who is the focus of the potential remedy to do (or refrain from doing) a particular thing.1 Focusing on the underlying crime opportunities provided at a particular place helps to limit the frustrations involved in revolving-door policing (i.e., offense commission, calls for service, arrest, conviction on a minor charge, release, and repeat).This guide provides general explanations about the types of civil remedies that you can use to address crime at particular places and points out a number of issues you should consider before using these remedies. Examples of placed-focused civil remedies are set out in the main text, and in Appendixes C and D. These remedies can be used to control a variety of crime opportunities focused on places, depending on the particular type of civil remedy used and the language set out in the legal regulations themselves, which differ across jurisdictions.

While a number of different types of crime problems that can benefit from the use of civil remedies are mentioned in this guide, two types of crime-and-place problems have been highlighted—drug-related crime in housing (particularly government-run or supported housing) and alcohol-related crime and disorder in and around licensed premises (i.e., bars, pubs, and clubs). Appendixes C and D summarize some of the key features of prevention schemes addressing these two crime problems, providing examples of situations in which they have been used both successfully and unsuccessfully. Historically, these problem places have been the focus of close government regulation, and the prevention schemes set out here reflect the use of existing statutory powers as well as the development of new regulatory mechanisms. Many, but not all of these, used the SARA† approach of problem-oriented policing to frame the steps taken to address the problems.‡

† “SARA” is the acronym used to describe the four steps involved in this approach—scanning, analyzing, responding, and assessing.

‡ Although Appendixes C and D primarily focus on drug crime and alcohol-related crime and disorder, many of these examples also involve a variety of other crime and disorder problems, reinforcing the idea that places can be potential crime-opportunity generators for a wide spectrum of crimes.


The guide does not cover all types of civil remedies. Asset forfeiture (including those included under Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) laws) will not be discussed here.† Regulations aimed specifically at anti-social behavior‡ and at gangs§ are not discussed here, although many of the crime problems discussed here may include anti-social behaviors and involve gang members. The use of third parties—such as insurance companies, auditors, and professional standards groups—to regulate economic behavior2 is also beyond the scope of this guide.

Neither does this guide address the use of the civil law as a means for the government to take ownership of land in order for it to be used for another, noncriminal purpose, such as for redevelopment.3

This guide does not address the use of new laws or regulations by themselves, unless they are used as part of more traditional civil remedies related to property. For example, legislation passed to require convenience stores to have two staff members present at all times, and laws restricting the number of hours that a liquor store may be open, do not include the type of civil remedy generally addressed here4 although liquor licensing requirements are addressed as part of the discussion of civil code enforcement.

Reasons for Police to Focus on Problem Properties

Civil remedies can be used against a wide variety of crimes and at different stages of the criminal process; however, they are different than many other crime prevention responses. Civil remedies can sometimes be used as specific responses to crime or disorder problems. Examples of these uses include tenants being evicted for selling drugs in public housing or for repeatedly having loud parties late at night in violation of their leases. Civil remedies can also be used to promote general crime prevention. In this latter sense, they induce changes to property conditions and practices that facilitate crime. Examples of this use include agencies enforcing health and safety codes as a way to force landlords to clean up housing that has been used as a place for drug use, or when the potential enforcement of licensing laws helps persuade pub owners to cooperate in an initiative to reduce late-night crime and disorder. Hence, they are often referred to under the label “third-party policing,”5 with the inducement sometimes being referred to as a “legal lever.”6 These types of control are increasingly being brought to bear in both public and private property contexts.

† See Response Guide No. 7, Asset Forfeiture.

‡ See Problem-Specific Guide No. 6, Disorderly Youth in Public Places.

§ See Shiner (2009) for a detailed set of guidelines for gang injunctions, with examples drawn primarily from legislation in California.


In many cases, these interventions increase the capacity of the local community to act as informal and formal agents of crime prevention. The local community is often the first party to notice the crime problem and the best source of information about the patterns associated with it.

It makes good sense for police to focus on crime places and opportunities. The importance of looking at the links between crimes, offenders, and places is well known in modern policing, and is well illustrated by the crime triangle’s emphasis on these three aspects of crime events.† Research has demonstrated that crime is clustered in some places and not others, and that blocking crime opportunities at high-risk places can prevent a wide range of crimes. Reducing opportunities does not require focusing on just one known offender or group of offenders. Changing the situation can influence many potential, as well as different types of offenders at that location, some of whom may be unknown to the police. It can be difficult to bring cases against individual offenders through arrest and prosecution alone. The criminal law necessarily sets a high standard of proof for punishment of an individual and that level of proof is often unavailable. Focusing on the property itself can lead to  incentives for those in control of premises to improve their design or management to help discourage would-be offenders.

Civil remedy use may not necessarily be a problem-free “quick fix.” It often requires a commitment of both time and resources. It is most often a collaborative effort (involving police, other governmental agencies, and the local community) and can call for patience across all stakeholders as the various stages of the legal process unfold. Furthermore, the use of civil remedies is not without some potential negative consequences as well since they can also produce unintended consequences that harm non-offenders or lead to a displacement of the crime problems. Careful planning (discussed below) should help limit the potential for these types of problems, however.

† The crime triangle is also known as the “Problem Analysis Triangle” (see Clarke and Eck 2005). It visually links three aspects of a crime event—offender, target (or victim), and place of occurrence—with three ways of controlling each of these: handlers control offenders, guardians control targets, and managers control places.

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