Original Photography by Ms. Phoenix (Some Rights Reserved)

Original Photography by Ms. Phoenix (Some Rights Reserved)

A Phoenix federal court recently issued a decision that may be of interest to local governments for two reasons.  First, the case, Salman v. City of Phoenix (D. AZ 2015), is notable for its finding that RLUIPA claims cannot be brought to challenge building or safety codes, since RLUIPA applies only to zoning or landmarking laws.  Second, for local governments considering criminally prosecuting landowners for violating local land use regulations, the case is noteworthy for its ruling that a federal habeas corpus action is the only mechanism available to challenge the validity of a state criminal conviction.

In 2006, Michael Salman, an ordained minister, and his wife began holding bible study meetings from their Phoenix home.  The following year, neighbors complained about the bible studies, prompting the City to send the Salmans several letters notifying them that, under the City’s building code, they could not use their home as a church.  In 2009, the Salmans built a 2,000 square foot game room in their back yard and began holding bible studies there.  The new game room increased bible study attendance from 15 to 35 people.  After the Salmans refused to comply with the building code, the City prosecuted Mr. Salman in state court.  He was jailed for 60 days, fined $12,000, and put on three years’ probation.

In 2011, the Salmans sued the City and sought to enjoin the City “from implementing and enforcing the Codes and Ordinances against Plaintiffs to prohibit private worship, bible studies, and placement of a reader board with religious messages at their residence and from prosecuting, sentencing, arresting, or incarcerating Plaintiffs.”  On July 15, 2015, after a long procedural history, including a decision by the Ninth Circuit, the federal court dismissed the plaintiffs’ constitutional claims because “[j]ust as a plaintiff is not permitted to attack the validity of his conviction by raising a § 1983 claim that would require him to negate an element of his crime … neither is he allowed to attack his conviction by raising a claim that would require him to prove an affirmative defense to his crime.  Under either scenario, the § 1983 plaintiff is requesting that the court make a finding that would necessarily imply the invalidity of his conviction.”

The court also dismissed the Salmans’ RLUIPA claim, reasoning that RLUIPA applies only to a “land use regulation,” defined as “a zoning or landmarking law, or the application of such law, that limits or restricts a claimant’s use or development of land.”  From the face of the Salmans’ complaint, it was not clear whether the code sections at issue could be deemed “land use regulations” because the amended complaint failed to specify which code sections were actually at issue. Though the court stated that “the few portions of the Amended Complaint that give some small clue as to the nature of the ordinances at issue indicate that they are building and safety codes, not zoning or landmarking laws.”  Because it was “impossible to surmise from the face of the Amended Complaint whether the complained-of sections of the code” are land use regulations, the RLUIPA claim was dismissed.