There is a multicolored slide, part of a jungle gym, in Robert Brians’s front yard on Delaware Street in Imperial Beach. But I am admiring his two large African turtles crawling along the dusty ground. Children who come to Kristen Brians’s day-care center like watching the turtles, too, not to mention the lizards and geckos in cages inside the house. But despite the business operating out of the Brians’s home for more than 12 years, the couple is worried about their future in the neighborhood.
It’s hard to pry my attention away from the turtles and look north up Delaware where Robert Brians is now pointing. “There at the end of the block,” he says, “I saw the pickup turn in the direction of the alley that runs behind my house.” The 38-year-old Brians recognized the City of Imperial Beach truck and guessed where it was going. “I went to the back of my property, where the alley comes out, and saw the guy standing in the bed of the truck taking pictures into my neighbor’s backyard two houses away. So I took a picture on my cell phone of him taking his pictures. And I yelled, ‘What the f* are you doing? That’s illegal. I caught your ass this time.’ Then he jumped down, backed the truck up, and left the way he came.”
Tommy Simmons, an Imperial Beach code compliance officer, has a different story, which is told in a California Code of Civil Procedure document filed by the City of Imperial Beach. The document is called “Petition for Orders to Stop Workplace Violence” — a petition to the court for a restraining order. According to the document, filed on July 28, two days after the incident, Simmons was in back of a house under investigation for a building code violation on Delaware Street when Brians “entered the alley and began calling [Simmons] by curse words like ‘motherf*er.’” Brians told the official to leave. He “repeatedly threatened [Simmons] with physical assault,” states the document, “saying ‘I will break your face,’ ‘I’m going to break your legs,’ and ‘I’ll wring your neck like a chicken.’ [Brians] then advanced on [Simmons, who] retreated to his pickup truck and drove to the front of the property he was inspecting.” The report makes no mention of any photographs.
Robert Brians, who stands six foot five and weighs 250 pounds, denies advancing on the much smaller Simmons and threatening him. “In the alley, I stayed right behind my own property the whole time,” he says, now ready to tell me what happened next. “I went back out front and walked up to tell my neighbor Jim Cronk that a rat had been behind his house taking pictures of his yard.” Meanwhile, Tommy Simmons had parked across the street and gotten out of his truck. So Cronk went across the street to speak with the officer, and Brians continued up the street, where he showed the picture he had taken to a few neighborhood friends. On his way back to his own house, says Brians, he saw Cronk and Simmons still talking on the other side of the street. He says he did not cross over to speak with Simmons.
But the City’s petition maintains that Simmons had not gotten out of his truck on Delaware Street before Brians “ran to [the officer’s] new location while continuing to scream at him. The property owner told [Brians] to go away, and the property owner discussed the property’s condition with [Simmons]. During this discussion, Brians waited across the street, periodically waving his middle finger.…”
Again, Brians denies the belligerence, calling the document “a trumped-up false report.”
To cement its case, the City’s petition cites “a code violation” that Simmons issued to Brians in 2008 — and its aftermath. The summary says that a hearing officer eventually had to tell Brians to discontinue calling Simmons “improper names.” Whenever the two met in town thereafter, continues the narrative, Brians would call Simmons vulgar names and “would tell him to ‘get the f* out of town.’” Brians tells me the original citation, for $300, was for parking his two motorcycles on the grass while he cleaned out his garage. “Hell,” he says, “there’s a trailer down the street that’s always parked on the lawn and never gets ticketed.”
Eight days after the picture-taking incident, on August 3, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department arrested Brians. He was leaving his house for a tile job that was to begin that morning. He was booked into county jail in downtown San Diego on one count of threatening death or bodily injury and one count of making a threat that prevents a public official from doing his job. After three days in jail, Brians was released on $25,000 bail. He has been assigned a public defender and is awaiting a trial whose date has yet to be set. The charges against him are known as “wobblers,” meaning that the court could treat them as either felonies or misdemeanors. If Brians is charged with felonies, he could be facing one conviction punishable by up to four years in state prison and another punishable by three years.
Brians’s assertion that it was Simmons who was breaking the law by taking pictures of his neighbor’s backyard is not likely to hold up. Code compliance laws vary among municipalities, often giving compliance officers greater leeway to inspect buildings and other structures than police officers have in criminal investigations. But staunch privacy advocates may want to take note.
“I don’t want somebody staring over my back fence, especially when my wife’s day-care kids are on the premises,” says Brians. “But at the time Simmons came here in 2008, before he cited me for the motorcycles, he had already gone up on his truck and taken pictures of the water connection to an RV I have parked just inside my fence. My property line goes all the way to the middle of the alley, so he was really in my yard without permission. The alley is for the use of all the residents whose backyards are next to it.”
But it’s the kids, including the Brians’s 16-year-old daughter and two sons, aged 12 and 4, who matter most of all, say the couple. I look out the back window of their kitchen onto a volleyball court they recently installed for their daughter, who will be participating in the sport this year at her high school. “She brings her friends and teammates here to practice,” says Robert Brians.
“There are young people at the Cronk’s place, too,” he continues, adding that other people in the neighborhood sunbathe in their backyards, sometimes in scant clothing. “So Simmons can come anytime he wants and look over the fence while they’re out there?”
I call David Garcias, Imperial Beach’s head of code compliance, hoping to find out if his department uses safeguards to protect its residents from invasion of privacy. He says he cannot comment on anything related to the Robert Brians case because it is going to court. Garcias has a reputation for being heavy-handed in running his department. In 2008, in an interview with Voice of San Diego, he chalked up local resistance to code compliance in his city to a small-town mentality and lack of good enforcement prior to his regime. “And the rules are being enforced now because the city really needs to develop,” he said.
Kristen Brians tells me that of late there seems to be more code compliance activity in her neighborhood, which she speculates is due to the Imperial Beach Redevelopment Agency’s latest project, a two-and-a-half-block commercial area on the south side of Palm Avenue between Seventh and Ninth. Delaware Street runs south from the commercial area. Businesses at the site have been boarded up since March. Parking for the center, after it’s renovated, is planned for the area behind and south of the new buildings, adjacent to neighborhood backyards. At planning meetings, where local residents’ concerns have been aired, the privacy of neighboring backyards came up. Some residents worried that their backyards would be visible from the new buildings.
Although the City’s mayor, Jim Janney, has expressed frustration that local property owners aren’t embracing redevelopment in the community, Kristen and Robert Brians and other residents feel that too much may be forced on them. “The redevelopment people act like they want us to become the next Coronado,” Kristen Brians tells me. “We try as best we can to keep our properties up. If they want us to do more, maybe they’d like to help us pay our mortgages.
“Imperial Beach is a very tight-knit community,” she continues. “My husband and I both grew up in the community and have lived here all our lives.” Robert Brians says he has never missed any of his children’s school outings. Several times when I call him, he answers from boys’ football practices.
“You know,” he adds as I’m about to end my visit, “I just remembered something about the day that the code compliance guy was in the alley. After I confronted him, and before he drove away, he aimed his camera at me. I was pointing my finger at him then, but I had a big smile on my face. And I hope that, at my trial, the judge makes him produce that picture.”
“You weren’t waving your middle finger, were you?” I ask. Brians laughs. “No, I was pointing like this,” he says, jabbing his index finger forward into the air.