When Body Talk owner Dominic Stenti and his lawyer, Harold I. Glaser, finished cutting a deal with county officials in which Stenti agreed to stop featuring nude dancing at his Baltimore County striptease club, there was no mention of freedom of speech.
But just last month, Glaser filed an exhaustive legal brief on Stenti's behalf, arguing that the kind of nude dancing featured at Body Talk in Rockdale is a protected form of free expression, guaranteed under the Maryland and U.S. constitutions.
It was the threat of a prolonged court battle over such issues that helped persuade county officials to agree to a settlement yesterday in which they dropped various charges against Stenti in exchange for his promise to cease operating a striptease joint after July 10.
After that, the business in the 8100 block of Liberty Road will revert to being a pool hall.
"Certainly," said Timothy Kotroco, one of two assistant county attorneys working on the case, "the appeals that could have been filed" was a factor in the decision to settle.
"This could have gone on for several more years," he continued. "Especially with the free-speech issue."
Under the terms of the agreement, announced yesterday in Baltimore County Circuit Court, Stenti pleaded not guilty to two building code violation charges, but agreed that a statement of facts presented by the county was accurate.
The result was that numerous other charges of building code and zoning violations were withdrawn. Stenti will have to pay a $10,000 fine.
Stenti did not avoid a conviction on a separate charge, that of selling alcohol without a liquor license.
Until an emergency bill was signed by the governor three weeks ago today, Stenti allowed his patrons to bring their own liquor onto the premises. The new law forbade that practice.
But according to a statement of facts read into the court record, an employee of Stenti's did give undercover police officers alcoholic beverages on three occasions in December in exchange for tips.
Glaser, in trying to avert a conviction on Stenti's record, argued that his client didn't encourage the practice and never profited from it.
"This is not a crime of violence," Stenti told the judge. "This is not the theft of millions. It's not robbery or murder. . . . I'm not condoning crime, I'm mitigating it."
But Smith said it was obvious that allowing customers to trade drinks for tips helped Stenti's business. And the judge rendered a guilty verdict, though he declined to impose a sentence. Stenti could have gotten up to two years in jail for the offense.
The settlement seemed to please most everyone involved with the case, especially residents near Body Talk, who have protested the striptease from the beginning.
Bill Obriecht, former president of the Liberty Community Council and a leader in the citizens' effort to close Body Talk, said he was happy with the agreement, though he would prefer that the nude dancing stop immediately.
"It means that some of the activities that have disturbed the community will continue until July," Obriecht said. "But there is light at the end of the tunnel."
The residents argued from the start that a striptease club was an inappropriate use for a business so close to a residential community.
Later, they complained about the drunken behavior of some Body Talk patrons, including making noise and urinating in public.
The residents' protests prompted the County Council last year to pass a law forbidding striptease clubs from locating within 1,000 feet of a church, school or residence. That law dictated that Body Talk close by Aug. 1 of this year, but it could have remained open on appeal.
Complaints about Body Talk also prompted a state legislator to get a law passed by the 1991 General Assembly forbidding the drinking of alcoholic beverages in a club that features nude dancing.
L Stenti has complied with that law, police and residents say.
The result, according to Obriecht, who has had residents monitor the club, was a decrease in business for Body Talk and the new practice of customers drinking in their cars outside.
"That's been the latest problem," Obriecht said, explaining that those same customers sometimes urinate outside.
But hopefully, he concluded, when the nude dancing stops, the other problems will, too.