Neighbors may get stronger hand against nuisances Bill aimed at business harboring vice

February 01, 1993|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,Staff Writer

State Sen. John A. Pica wants to make it easier and faster for community groups to rid their neighborhoods of commercial establishments where drug trafficking and prostitution are suspected, but which manage to stay open despite repeated complaints that they are public nuisances.

The Baltimore Democrat introduced legislation last week in the Maryland General Assembly that would enable community associations statewide to use the District Court system to obtain injunctions against problem businesses, primarily bars and liquor stores.

Under the bill, those establishments could be closed down within a month of filing a successful complaint, instead of the current process, which Mr. Pica said can take several months, if it goes forward at all.

"Existing institutions [such as liquor boards] take too long to satisfy individual communities' complaints," Mr. Pica said. "People are frustrated that they can't effect change in their communities. I think they want to play a direct role in ridding their neighborhoods of drugs, pornography and obscenity."

Under the proposed measure, nuisances are defined generally as drug trafficking, manufacture or possession; prostitution; and nude or sexual displays.

"Right now, there is little recourse for neighborhoods to shut these places down," Mr. Pica said. "If it's a bar, you would go to the liquor board; or if it's an establishment licensed by another agency, then you have to get action from those licensing agencies."

Beverly Thomas, chairwoman of the Citywide Liquor Coalition for Better Laws and Regulation, a Baltimore umbrella group of 80 participating community associations, said she was pleased with the Pica bill.

"We're excited that this will be another tool helpful to the communities to address the negative spillovers from liquor stores and taverns," Ms. Thomas said.

"The average community resident sees it as helping to address the problem on a broader scale -- the loitering that many of us cannot address as illegal.

"To date, there hasn't been anything we're aware of that's been able to help us clean up these corners," she said.

"It would give us some breathing room."

As an example of the problem, Mr. Pica cited repeated criminal incidents in bars along Baltimore's tenderloin district, The Block.

Time and again, employees have been charged with prostitution and soliciting drinks, and patrons have been charged with disorderly conduct.

But, he said, the city's Board of Liquor License Commissioners rarely closes establishments, though it has fined bars and suspended licenses for short periods, once complaints are filed, processed and upheld.

Aaron L. Stansbury, the liquor board's executive director, acknowledged that it is rare that a license is revoked or its renewal refused because the panel does not want to put an establishment out of business.

Generally, Mr. Stansbury said, "the goal is not to put the business out of business," but to correct a problem.

OC "When you put a person out of business, even for a few days, it

could spell the end of the business," he said. "You affect the license holder, as well as the employees."

Often, he said, the board allows license holders to pay fines in lieu of suspending the license for a few days.

But in egregious cases, Mr. Stansbury said, the board has closed establishments, including those where community groups were able to document a repeated and sustained problem, especially drug trafficking.

But the trouble with the liquor board process, Mr. Pica asserts, is that it often takes several months. One reason is simply a scheduling problem; another reason is that the liquor board is repeatedly asked to wait for the courts' adjudication of those criminal cases before taking action.

More often than not, the criminal cases against the individuals are plea bargained, charges are dropped or put on the inactive docket, or the individuals are given probation, Mr. Pica said.

Ultimately, the establishment remains open, he said.

"I'm not being critical of the liquor board. I think the board feels that it takes an awful lot to revoke a license," Mr. Pica said. "The real focus is to place in the hands of the communities the power to rid their neighborhoods of drugs and prostitution."

While Mr. Pica denied the legislation is aimed at shutting down The Block, or taking power away from the city's liquor board and Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals, the legislation certainly could be used to do both.

Mr. Stansbury said he had early discussions with Mr. Pica about the legislation but could not comment on it at this point because neither he nor members of the board had yet seen the bill.

Mr. Pica also noted that the legislation might be used to shut down private clubs that do not serve alcohol -- establishments such as Odell's -- which city officials repeatedly have sought unsuccessfully to close for alleged nuisance violations.

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