Members of the Harford County Council, prodded by the county prosecutor, are drafting what would be Maryland's first comprehensive law for regulating adult bookstores.
The law, which is expected to be introduced in a month or more, is being modeled after an ordinance in Dallas that was challenged before the U.S. Supreme Court. The Dallas ordinance, which also affects other sexually oriented businesses, was amended as a result of the court challenge and has been in force for about a year.
"Hopefully, they've plowed a lot of ground that we won't have to plow again," said Joseph I. Cassilly, the Harford state's attorney and a Republican candidate to unseat U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md.
Cassilly, who has waged an unsuccessful campaign in recent years to drive adult bookstores out of the county, testified before the Anne Arundel County Council this week before it voted to impose a temporary moratorium on the licensing of video peep shows.
Jeffrey D. Wilson, a Republican and president of the Harford council, said tighter control over adult bookstores has been an issue the council has studied for several years.
Wilson said he expected all council members to be involved in drafting of the licensing law, which would affect existing and new businesses.
The local chapter of the American Family Association, most of whose members have strong religious beliefs, also has lobbied for more government control over adult bookstores.
Joseph LaVodie, manager of U.S. Books in Edgewood, one of five adult bookstores in the county, said the council was "running up against a brick wall."
He predicted that an attempt to create a licensing law for such businesses would be seen by the courts as unconstitutional. "It's censorship in the worst possible vein," LaVodie said.
Wilson, a Presbyterian minister, said yesterday that the Harford law would not be an attempt to regulate what is sold in the bookstores, such as sexually explicit videos and magazines.
Rather, Wilson said, it would be aimed at what the Dallas ordinance calls "secondary impacts" of the businesses, or prostitution, drug use and other crimes that police say occurs in and around the establishments.
"They have proven themselves to be magnets for illegal activities," Wilson said.
"If we don't conflict with constitutional rights, I believe it will be a strong bill and one that will be enforceable," said Councilman Phillip J. Barker, D-District F.
Donald Postell, an executive assistant city attorney in Dallas, said his city's licensing law, though difficult to enact, appeared to be limiting the number of sexually oriented businesses. Several years ago, there were about 50 adult bookstores in the city, he said. There are about 20 today.
The Dallas ordinance limits where such businesses can operate, steering them away from schools, parks and residential areas. It also requires them to have certain lighting and requires managers to constantly monitor activities in video booths and other areas. If illegal activities are found to be occurring, Postell said, licenses can be revoked.
Wilson added that he considered Cassilly to be "the point man on this," because the prosecutor has been involved in investigating Harford's adult bookstores for several years. All but four of the stores are along the U.S. 40 corridor between Havre de Grace and Edgewood. The fifth is on U.S. 1 in Fallston.
Cassilly has organized two police raids on adult bookstores since June 1989. The second raid, in March, was partly an attempt to generate leads in the investigation of the April 1990 stabbing death of James O. Blakeley, 17, of Havre de Grace.
Blakeley was last seen alive at U.S. Books, and police believe he was stabbed by a man he met at the store.
During an earlier raid, police seized material from four adult bookstores. Since then, Cassilly has secured fines of $10,000 from two of the stores that were charged with violating a state law governing how sexually explicit material can be displayed for sale.
Cassilly acknowledged that the relatively small fines have done little to affect the operation of the bookstores.
Cassilly spoke more freely than Wilson about wanting to regulate material the bookstores sell, not just target criminal acts they are alleged to foster.
If the council passes the licensing law and other counties follow suit, Cassilly said, "Maybe we can clear this kind of trash out of the state.
"This stuff attracts some really sick people," he said. " 'Deviants' would be putting it mildly."