Investigating Unpermitted Construction & Unlicensed Business Activity


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This page will include valuable initial-contact tasks and a typical investigative scenario.

Below we see a Code Enforcement 'Officer-In-Training' on a actual call.  Immediately upon arrival the Officer, prior to exiting her vehicle, documented the license tags and markings/logos on all vehicles and trailers present.  She then documented and photographed all initial observations and activity. This may seem trivial at first compared to simply approaching the contractors/persons doing the work; this type of violation can quickly snow-ball and explode into a huge county or state court-room situation. Having all your evidence in order will enhance your case, professionalism and involvement should things suddenly exit the confines or your immediate jurisdiction. The Officer will also be able to take action on all violators without having to track-down individuals and corporations after-the-fact. On just this one call the officer dealing with some major issues that ultimately impact the pulic health, saftey and welfare.  This situation includes a retention-pond for strom-water run-off being filled-in.  This can impact all surrounding property ,state/county roads and the state water management system of lakes, rivers and resivours.  Several large protected trees have been removed.  The originally approved and recorded site-plan has been altered with the demolition and removal of existing concrete parking areas and landscaping. If a simple 'Stop-Work' order were posted and the construction crews simply departed and things did snow-ball the officer would be stuck in a huge case without a bunch of the principal violators involved or information on who,what,where,when,how and why. Principals who are (or should be) state licensed contractors!





Typical Investigative Scenario



Two of these large signs suddenly appeared at a large furniture store chain. Signs are a big deal in all County and City Planning Departments nation-wide.  Square-footage and other requirements go through a long review and approval process even before the sign is manufactured...not to mention installed.  Also, their are electrical requirements. If the sign contractor does not have a certified & licensed master electrician employed a electrical contractor must be hired with his/her own permit. 

There are two, possibly four  violators in this situation:  The property owner. The business owner. The sign contractor. And possibly the  electrical contractor. (Often the property and business owner are the same) The property owner could be a individual or a corporation with a registered agent and multiple owners.  The business could also be a corporation as-well-as the sign and electrical contractors. This means there could easily be six or more violators/respondents.  The contractors are required to be licensed by the state.  Not obtaining an approved in-hand permit prior to construction / installation of the signs is a violation of state law subjecting them to license suspension/revocation and fines.  The officer can make sure that those authorities are notified as-well.  





Part 1 Sign Contractor - Part 2 Business / Property Owner

The only clue on the signs was one small sticker: It read 'Central Signs' and provided only a phone area-code; the rest of the number covered by part of the sign structure.  The state department of coporations free record search web-site revealed 100+ former and active sign comapnies with some variation of this name...but only 5 in the area code documented on the sign.  The state web-site provided the downloading of annual business report documents which arrive as 'tiff' files or can simply be opened for viewing.  The ones for 2004-2006 are electronically filed and signed. The earlier ones are scanned hand-written documents which require a phone number.  These were downloaded and saved in a case-file created on the officer in-vehicle lap-top computer desk-top. Each number was called via cell-phone and each had a receptionist.  In each case the receptionist was asked what their mailing address was and asked if they recently constructed a sign at (City & State). When questioned the officer simply stated they looked good and he/she was thinking of using the company.  One of the companies said yes...Bingo.  Back to the state department of corporations web-site downloaded annual uniform business reports.  All were deleted except the obvious one.  The mailing address provided by the receptionist did not match any of the addresses listed with the state.  Each address will receive a violation notice and/or citation; depending on the officers jurisdiction and SOP.  The state records inidacted a corporate president/owner name but an address still different than the one listed with the state.  A quick search for the county web-site for the county where the address is was performed.  A link was found to conduct a free property tax / records search.  The address was entered and the search results revealed the same name as the corporation president.  Now armed with the knowledge that the correct corporation and owner has been discovered, the officer returns to the state web-site. This time a free license search will be performed to ensure that the sign contractor is licensed with the state.  This search, once a officer learns how to ustilize their states particular web-site and advanced searching tabs, will also be able to determine if the corporation also has a licensed master electrician.  Some states even offer a license holder complaints tab. If the license holder is a habitual state-law violator the state authorities shoul be alerted immediately.  Their is nothing worse than being before a code enforcement board or a circuit court judge and being asked if you follwed-up with state authorities and you did not!  (In this case the sign comapny had their own electrician = 2 violations of state-law and 3 local jurisdiction laws violated: No electrical or sign permit and, because most local jurisdictions by ordinance, adopt the state building code laws the state requirement for a permit can also be used by the local city or county jurisdiction.  On-top of that, the sign company was not registered with the local jurisdiction to perform work within the city/county.  Most local jurisdictions require registration, by ordinance, to verify the contractors active insurance, licensing and workers-compensation coverage!  The whole purpose of code enforcement: to protect the public health-safety & welfare is in-play here. The size and square footage vs. allowable sign copy and existing signage equation protects the community against blight caused by too much signage and glare.  the permitting requirements protect the public against injury, fire or electrical shock by ensuring the sign is correctly attached to the building and wired safely, grounded and electrically compliant to NEC codes.

The local county property-search web-site listed the property ownership as two last names with a dash between them and a address.  Code enforcement action cannot be taken against two last names with a dash between them.  One of the last names matched the business name. This business actually has two names, verified by the jurisdictions occupational license. Unfortunately, the occupational license holder was listed as the same two last names, separated by a dash and the same address.  The address turned out to be in the same jurisdiction as the sign suprise there.  Obviously, and by state statute, a violation notice or citation will be issued to the actual business at the local violation location.  But the real principals must also be cited.  Fines and liens placed on property and individuals by judges or code enforcement boards attach themselves like little tennacles to the violators. Thinking that nothing happened when they blew-off code enforcement action comes back to haunt them later.  If the fines build up to a nice high amount, the jurisdiction can forclose on the property. Usually the potential of this happening results in another hearing which can only be held once compliance is gained. The jurisdiction gets compliance and the judge or board, based on testimony from the jurisdiction, officer and violator, can elliminate, reduce or keep the fines as originally set. This brings not only compliance ensuring the safety and welfare of the public and community, but also brings-in dollars which assist the jurisdiction, the citizens and ensure that Police, Fire/rescue, sanitation , code enforcement and other governemnt departments can continue to serve the citizens.  Back to the business/property owner; the officer has now determined that they are one in the same.  Back to the state web-site for corporate records. No corporation exists that invloves the address or the business name.  back to the county web-site that is the same county as the address we already have.  Upon enterin the address the officer discovers a address and first-last name that matches one of the last names in the business name. Saved and documented, the officer returns to the state web-site for corporation searches.  Instaed of searching by comapny/corporation names, a different tab is selected which searches for corporate officers, presidents and registered agents by name.  The name discovered from earlier is entered...Bingo!  The individuals who actually own the store also own a retail establishment with a totally different name.  Further searching of that corporation reveals all the 'Brothers' who own the business location in-violation.  Now the offcier is able to meet all state stautes regarding 'due-process' by serving / citing each responsible party!

Yes...their are alternatives to code enforcement action. many officers may just waltz into the business and talk to the owners and maybe even gain the desired compliance. However, if the desired compliance is not gained, the above scenario will have to be the worked-out compliance attempt just extended to an even longer period.  In-additon, if the officer then only takes action on the property owner...and push comes to shove and the officer winds up in a court-room environment the first thing out of the mouth of the property/business owner is going to be: 'I hired a licensed contractor...he said he handled the permitting!'  Trust me...the officer does not want to be sitting thier without all pincipals involved cited and present and all state statute requirements met prior to being at that point. 

Once the officer has taken the above described action, he/she can alter or extend compliance times etc... It is better for the officer to take the action, then work with the violators to gain compliance vs. trying to work with them prior to taking action.  If no compliance is gained then everything is already in-place to go to a hearing!  then the city manager or planning director or citizen is not breathing down the offficers neck wanting to know what is taking so long = less stress in the officers ability to do his/her job.  Remember, a complainant cane be another government department, a citizen or: a honest contractor seeing his ethical and law-abiding demeanor being insulted by a unlicensed or non-law abiding competitor!

You are an officer. You are protecting the public health, safety and welfare. Regardless of how trivial it may all seem on the surface!


A simple but perfectly executed example from NC

Jurisdiction requires door to door sales to be licensed with the county and local municipality.  Residents complained that cleaning-products peddlers were rude, observed urinating between houses and possibly stole items from open garages and keyed automobiles.  Only thing forwarded to Code Officers was a phone number and a business owner name.  The phone was a dead-end pay-as-you-go type unlisted cel.

The phone number was 'googled' and a large 'pay-for-info' web-site service indicated it had records for the phone. Fore free it identified the county of the owner but required payment for further information. Armed with the county of the phone number owner (different then the county of the violation) a general web-search was performed for that counties property tax / appraisers web-site.  The county offered on-line property records searching.  The name was entered. 15 hits returned homes owned by persons with that name.  The list was narrowed to 2 properties based on the deed and sales-date. The others having been purchased way to long ago to be the young man in-charge of people walking the neighborhood. Armed with this info, the code officer called the number provided by the residents for the product.  The phone was answered by the violator who stated his name and business.  The code officer stated that he had a delivery and wanted to verify which address of the two was the correct one and read them both off to the violator.  The violator verfified one of the two addresses!

The code officer politely thanked him and hung-up.  Addtionally, the county of the violation and the county of residence provided occupational license searches under the depatrment of tax links at the county web-sites.  Guess licensing at either.  Then the state web-site was accessed and guess corporations or business were owned by the violator.  In-addition to the local citation, the code officer alerted both counties code enforcement departments, tax departments and the local municipality of residence. One code officer caused five more enforcement departments to investigate the violator!