Monday, April 16, 2012

NEIGHBORHOODS: Trayvon Martin Death Puts HOA's and Neighbor Watch Programs on Notice

Even if George Zimmerman is never charged with or convicted of Trayvon Martin's death in a criminal trial, Zimmerman's homeowners association (HOA) could be open to a Martin family civil suit that could cost the association (read: HOA members) millions -- just to defend the case.

Zimmerman faces a grand jury on April 12. His HOA community allegedly assigned him the role of community watchman. Even if
"stand-your-ground" law absolves Zimmerman in a criminal trial, he and his HOA likely won't escape a civil suit for negligence.Martin died of a gunshot wound Feb. 26 in an encounter with Zimmerman on the property of Zimmerman's HOA, the Retreat at Twin Lakes, in Sanford, FL.

If Zimmerman was named watch captain and there are questions about the HOA exercising due diligence in preparing Zimmerman for his role as a community representative, specifically as a Neighborhood Watch leader, negligence can easily make a civil case.

Just for this reason, at least one real estate company selling properties at The Retreat has distanced itself from the HOA in an online statement that says "We are an independent brokerage firm NOT affiliated in any way with the Home Owner Association."

"The death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old high school student in Sanford, Fla., is a vivid reminder that neighborhood watch programs, even with the best intentions, can trigger tragic results for families, residents and entire communities," says Thomas M. Skiba, CAE, chief executive officer of Community Associations Institute (CAI).

"We know neighborhood watch programs can reduce crime and ease the fears of residents, but they also pose major risks when appropriate procedures aren’t followed. It’s essential that those who organize and lead watch programs work with local law enforcement authorities to ensure that all volunteers understand and accept the extent and limitations of their responsibilities," said Skiba.

Skiba said it’s not CAI’s place to pass judgment on the criminality of the events in Florida or the state’s stand-your-ground law.

"But the horrible fact remains that family and friends now grieve for a young man," he says. "As the father of a 17-year-old son, I can’t begin to imagine the horror facing Trayvon’s family. If nothing else, the regrettable confrontation that night reminds us that such programs must be carefully implemented and rigorously monitored."

Skiba urges all community associations—even when a watch program isn’t managed by the association—to review procedures and to do everything possible to prevent confrontations that should be handled by police.

For communities considering neighborhood watch programs, Skiba offers the following advice:
• Contact the local police department for start-up support, guidance and training. Volunteers who skip this critical step can find themselves on the wrong side of the law—or worse.
• Seek the advice of an attorney with expertise in community association law.
• Create processes for recruiting only responsible volunteers who will follow all procedures.

• Develop methods, such as websites and e-mail, to keep volunteers and residents informed.
• Continuously reinforce all procedures—including do-not-engage rules for resident volunteers.
"Community associations should proceed very carefully before they decide to create or manage a neighborhood watch program or before they even formally endorse a watch program organized by residents," Skiba says.
He says association boards considering this issue need to ask three fundamental questions:
• What is the extent of the association’s powers under its governing documents?
• Does the association have the authority to establish a community watch?
• What are the legal and ethical liabilities of an association-sponsored watch program?

"These questions should be answered – definitively - before board members take formal action to establish a watch program or even lend support to such an initiative. Communities that can’t or won’t answer these questions should drop the idea altogether," says Skiba.

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