Plan to separate criminal vs. civil situations

in condo complaints

Article Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel

By Joe Kollin
Posted October 11, 2005


You think your condominium or homeowner association officers have their hands in the cookie jar. So you go to the police to report the crime.

Sorry, they say. That's a civil matter, meaning you must hire a lawyer and file a civil suit.

Law enforcement officials do have the power to deal with crimes such as embezzlement, fraud and misuse of association funds, experts say. But the law is so complicated that many police agencies don't know it.

"They don't really understand condo infractions and what to look for so they end up referring people to civil court," said state Rep. Julio Robaina, R-Miami, who wants to start a pilot program in Miami-Dade County to help such owners.

Robaina plans to ask the Legislature in March to allocate $100,000 for his program, which would teach detectives and prosecutors criminal law as it applies to associations.

And because many complaints are really the result of an owner's beef against the board, or an internal dispute, the program would also screen complaints, separating disputes from real crimes.

Mark Bogen, a Boca Raton attorney, and the Florida Community Associations Coalition, which he formed this year to help educate unit owners, would screen the complaints.

Bogen, who writes legal columns for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, said most associations are run well, but those where directors, officers or managers are misusing funds deal with millions of dollars.

"Ninety-nine percent of associations are fine, but the 1 percent involves a lot of money," he said.

Robaina said he wants to start the pilot program in Miami-Dade, where state attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle is eager to participate.

Her spokesman, Ed Griffith, said the program will help law enforcement and unit owners. Police and prosecutors would only see legitimate complaints and owners will know their complaints are being taken seriously.

"When we tell people we can't help them, they get very frustrated," Griffith said. "That's why the program envisioned here is exactly what is needed. You have to understand the system to deal with it because it's very complex. We understand white collar crime, we prosecute it all the time, but we use evidence. We can't go on belief."

If successful in Miami-Dade, the program would be considered for use throughout the state, Robaina said.