CLEARWATER — The attorney for the Clearwater Hotel is firing back after the city’s Nuisance Abatement Board accused the hotel owner of not doing enough to halt drug activity on the property.
The city complaint against owner Amish Patel is based on more than a dozen drug arrests at the hotel. The arrests range from simple possession in the parking lot, to sales and trafficking from cars and hotel rooms, to the alleged manufacturing of crack cocaine and methamphetamine in rooms at the hotel, police said.
The city admits Patel has cooperated with police by ensuring proper outdoor lighting, granting police access to security camera footage, towing cars not registered to hotel guests, permanently securing back doors to hotel rooms to discourage drug buys, and reporting suspicious behavior to police.
But continuing allegations of drug activity led the nuisance board to hold a hearing on the hotel’s future on March 4. The board, consisting of seven citizens, contacts owners when police find continuous prostitution or drug-related activity on their property. The board can levy fines against the property and order Patel to reimburse the city for investigative costs and attorney’s fees — all of which could become a lien against the property if he fails to pay them.
The board can also close down a nuisance property, if the illegal activity is “inextricably intertwined with the business.” Meaning: if the property owner is the one running the illegal operation. Police are not accusing Patel or any of his employees of criminal activity, Smith said.
Shyamie Dixit, Patel’s lawyer, faults the city for ongoing drug transactions at the hotel. After all, Clearwater police detectives and their confidential informants are among those buying drugs in the hotel’s parking lot. Though they are making arrests, Dixit argued, the undercover police activity guarantees illegal drug transactions on the property.
“This has placed my client in a proverbial Catch-22,” Dixit wrote Assistant City Attorney Matt Smith Feb. 21. Smith represents the city while lawyer Thomas Trask serves as the nuisance board’s attorney. “Mr. Patel and hotel staff openly assisted police officers and, unbeknownst to my client and hotel staff, their assistance allowed officers to make ongoing controlled drug purchases on the property.”
Hotel owner cooperative
Police acknowledgement of Patel’s cooperation should lead the police and the city to drop the nuisance complaint against the hotel owner, but police aren’t having it, Dixit argued.
“Rather than acknowledging Mr. Patel’s and the hotel staff’s assistance,” he wrote Smith, “the Clearwater Police Department seems to have taken the position that my client should be held responsible for alleged illegal transactions arranged and consummated by police operatives with individuals on the premises.”
After a review of city and law-enforcement documents, a picture emerges of a hotel owner trying to keep his family business operating, even as police and criminals skirmished on his property. Smith, however, says police are not the drivers of crime on the property.
The police department — via the nuisance board — warned Patel, who owns the hotel under the moniker DEVOM LLC, to undertake improvements to halt illegal drug activity there in a certified letter dated Oct. 3. The city’s initial complaint identified the property as the Knights Inn, but Patel has since separated from that company and changed the inn’s name to the Clearwater Hotel.
Five days after the initial complaint, Patel on Oct. 8 contacted Clearwater Police Lt. Michael Ogliaruso seeking guidance in halting drug activity.
As Ogliaruso and Patel walked the property, the police lieutenant examined interior and exterior lighting, including in the parking lot, and noted the location of functioning security video cameras. The front office also opened its hotel registry for police review. When Patel offered to provide police access to the camera footage around the clock, the police officer described Patel in an Oct. 9 letter to superiors as “very cooperative and will work with the Clearwater Police Department to address the issues identified with his property.”
Undercover buys continue
Police, however, continued to provide money to informants to buy heroin, fentanyl, crack, and other drugs on the hotel property in the weeks after Ogliaruso walked the grounds with Patel.
For instance, on Dec. 5, Clearwater detectives used a confidential informant — spending “City of Clearwater funds” — to purchase fentanyl on the hotel premises. On Dec. 12, a detective gave city funds to an informant, who bought crack from a hotel guest near an exterior staircase.
Again, on Dec. 13, a detective sitting in his car gave $60 in city funds to an informant. The informant then got in a second car on the hotel premises and bought crack cocaine. Then, on Dec. 17, there were two separate purchases, and on Dec. 27, the detective made his own purchase of crack cocaine for investigative purposes.
Dixit also disagrees with the police department’s — and the nuisance board’s — assertion that his client’s hotel is the sole focal point of the drug activity near the intersection of the U.S. 19 service road and Gulf to Bay Boulevard. A vacant lot owned by the Florida Department of Transportation sits on the north side of the hotel, as does a strip club called Sinsations, Dixit argued in his letter.
Adjacent properties a problem
The vacant lot has a transient camp on it, and the individuals “loiter on the surrounding properties, including the hotel,” Dixit wrote. “Clientele from the club often loiter and engage in illegal activity on the surrounding properties, including the hotel, sometimes passing through a large gap in the wall behind the club.”
Patel’s lawyer also argued the nuisance board complaint does not specify whether drug suspects were hotel guests or simply trespassers, transients, or private citizens who pulled their vehicles into the hotel parking lot after police ordered them to pull over on the service road. Nor have police stated whether employees were involved or should have known the drug activity was taking place, Dixit said.
The lawyer said his client is an unintended victim, not a bad actor.
“As a threshold matter, my client does not tolerate nor condone criminal activity on the property,” Dixit wrote.
Smith, who represented the city police complaint against Patel at the March 4 nuisance hearing, said the police are not the reason drug activity continues at the hotel.
“We were not setting up the deals,” Smith said. “Police act on information they’re given. At no point do the police ever say, ‘We want to do a drug deal on this property.’”
City: Criminals were already operating there
The criminal element was already operating at the hotel, Smith said, sometimes staying in rooms, and sometimes taking advantage of easy access, such as the gap in the wall behind Sinsations.
“That’s one reason it’s attractive,” Smith said. “It’s an attractive place to do the deals.”
Does the city close down a business property where criminals operate, even if the owner does his or her best to prevent the criminal behavior? The nuisance board seeks cooperation, not the destruction of a legal business.
“It’s a tough call for the city make,” Smith said, “but I like to think I’m reasonable and I’ll always work with someone, and the police chief (Clearwater Police Chief Dan Slaughter) will always work with them.”
Smith sought more cooperation from the hotel at the March 4 hearing.
“In concept I, on behalf of the city, and Mr. Dixit on behalf of the hotel, will work out an answer. We have a list of things we both have to do, there is give-and-take. And while the city would acknowledge there has been cooperation, it has not been total.”
For instance, Patel has security cameras, but they don’t all work, Smith said. The city would also like Patel to increase barriers to entering his property and make other improvements, Smith said.
“I feel all my dealings with Mr. Patel and his attorney have been positive,” Smith told the Beacon. “The thing we can do together will be to send a message to the criminal element: This is no longer going to be a good place to go.”