Q. Our community is dealing with a situation between neighbors that involves a male teenager harassing the residents across the street. The teenager threatens and intimidates and has thrown objects at the home and the vehicles in the driveway. The neighbors subject to this harassment have asked the HOA to take action and have suggested that our HOA organize a neighborhood watch program to deter suspicious activity in the neighborhood. Should the HOA get involved and is this program a good idea?

A: As a result of the recent tragic shooting of Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, the role and relationship between neighborhood watch groups and homeowner associations have come into question. Neighborhood watch programs provide a valuable service to communities, but in order to avoid liability for the homeowners association and its members the relationship between the two must be carefully created and controlled. First and foremost, the purpose of a homeowners association is to preserve and enhance property values within the community by maintaining the common areas and ensuring homeowners maintain the exterior of their home in good condition and otherwise follow the community rules. A homeowners association is not intended to prevent crime or ensure one’s personal safety.

Likewise, the purpose of a neighborhood watch program is not to catch criminals, but simply to observe and report suspicious activity to the local authorities. In the Martin/Zimmerman matter, it appears that the homeowners association and the neighborhood watch program both exceeded their roles, and the result has been tragic. In the Martin/Zimmerman matter, the association’s newsletter directed people to report suspicious activity to Mr. Zimmerman. As such, the association, whether it intended to or not, accepted a certain degree of responsibility to make sure the participants were properly trained, acted responsibly, and hopefully knew whether or not guns were being carried on patrol. In this case, as a result of the “official relationship” between the two groups it is quite possible that the homeowners association will be subject to liability in a civil lawsuit for negligently operating the neighborhood watch program.

In order to avoid such possible liability while still allowing a neighborhood watch program that may benefit the community, we recommend the following to homeowner associations:

1) The neighborhood watch program should only be established with help and guidance of the local law enforcement authorities

2) The neighborhood watch program should not be a committee of the Board or have any official connection to the homeowners association

3) The neighborhood watch program should be an independent volunteer group that is not selected, appointed, confirmed or controlled by the homeowners association

4) The separation between the association and the watch program should be clear and regularly communicated on any printed material

5) The neighborhood watch volunteers should not carry badges, wear uniforms, or in any way suggest or imply they are sanctioned by the homeowners association to provide security to the community.