Property owners accuse Cumberland manager, code officer of trespassing

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CUMBERLAND — In the latest chapter of a dispute that has been in court for two years, a father and son are claiming two town officials trespassed on their property in 2014 and 2015.

The complaint by Elvin Copp and his son, Randall Copp, was filed against Town Manager Bill Shane, Code Enforcement Officer Bill Longley, and the town May 7 in U.S. District Court.

The Copps claim the two town officials entered their property off Pointer Way without a warrant, in violation of various state and federal civil rights laws and statutes, including the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unlawful searches, according to the Copps’ attorney, Jeffrey Bennett.

Shane said there was no trespassing, since Longley has the right to enforce code matters, and they both had verbal permission to be on the property.

The Copps obtained a building permit for a home on the property in May 2014, continued work as required for the next 180 days, and posted a “no trespassing” sign during that time, according to court documents. Longley was on the property Aug. 5 without a request for inspection or authorization to be there, the Copps claim.

Sometime before Sept. 24, 2015, the Copps requested that they be present whenever town officials entered their property. They have a photo showing Shane there that day, although neither Copp was present, the lawsuit claims.

The town issued a notice of violation ordering corrective action the following month, based on a road inspection Longley conducted on the property that day. Longley said there was a lack of progress, and that the building permit had expired.

The town’s Board of Adjustment and Appeals heard the matter in February 2016, and partially upheld the violation notice. The board “basically found in Randy’s favor” that he had made sufficient progress, but “found that he hadn’t had inspections, and that he needed to reapply for a building permit,” Shane said last week.

Meanwhile, the board “felt that there was no real trespass issue; that the code officer has rights to enforce,” the manager said.

The Copps appealed the board’s decision in Cumberland County Superior Court, and the court filing included a separate claim concerning the trespass/warrantless search issue, Bennett said last week. The Copps withdrew that claim “without prejudice” in order to re-file it at a later time, leaving only the appeal of the notice of violation before the court.

Justice Nancy Mills in March 2017 dismissed the Copps’ appeal as moot. They appealed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, which affirmed the dismissal.

“Contrary to the Copps’ contention, their claims that the Board erred were rendered moot when they complied with the (notice of violation),” the high court’s November 2017 decision said. “Upon the Copps’ compliance with the (Notice of Violation), the (codes officer) lifted the stop work order, and the Copps were free to continue building their home.”

With that matter settled, the Copps returned to the trespassing claim. They are seeking a jury trial and undetermined damages.

“This is a civil rights claim, as opposed to an appeal of the town board action,” Bennett said. He said Shane and Longley “entered Copps’ land without a search warrant, and they’re government officials, and the law applies to them as it applies to any other government official.”

Since a warrant or permission is needed for access, “it’s a government intrusion case,” the attorney added. “They could have asked for permission, but instead they decided to ignore civil rights and take everything into their own hands, and government actors can’t do that.”

Shane said he and Randy Copp had agreed on boundaries for excavation work to occur, “and I was inspecting those boundaries. Elvin Copp informed us that we would not be restricted from the site.”

Copp said that at a meeting with Longley and the younger Copp, the manager said. “There was no written statement that he gave us,” Shane said. “It was just that we were trying to work together, and he said ‘I’ll remove the restriction for you to come on the site.'”

Because the case is in federal court, the town’s legal costs are covered by insurance, Shane said.

The discovery process will begin when the town answers the lawsuit, Bennett said. The case could then take six to 12 months.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.