Schmoke works to overhaul drug-free zone law

January 28, 1994|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Staff Writer

The Schmoke administration is working to revise the city's drug-free zone law, saying that the measure sometimes is a detriment to law enforcement, rather than the drug-fighting tool envisioned when it was enacted in 1989.

"We are conducting a major review of the drug-free zone legislation. I have heard a lot of dissatisfaction around the city about the law," Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said yesterday, adding that law could be substantially changed, or even scrapped.

"At this point, we don't know what is going to happen," said Tracy Brown, director of the Mayor's Coordinating Council on Criminal Justice, who is reviewing the law for the mayor. "We just started looking into it."

What is clear, Mr. Schmoke said, is that the law often is unworkable.

Baltimore's ordinance gives police increased power to disperse loiterers and provides for misdemeanor penalties against anyone loitering to sell narcotics in the 55 areas designated as drug-free zones. Violations of the law usually are coupled with other drug- and weapons-related charges, the mayor said.

But enforcement is being hampered by "finger-pointing," he added.

He said police officers complain that judges routinely throw out cases when arrests are made in drug-free zones, spots recognized as open-air drug markets by police.

"Police have said that they had the experience of judges actually dismissing cases right at the beginning of their docket simply by asking if any people in the courtroom were arrested in a drug-free zone," Mr. Schmoke said. "When they stood up, their cases were dismissed."

Meanwhile, he said, judges complain that prosecutors have not been pursuing many cases involving drug-free zones because the prosecutors doubt the constitutionality of the law. And some prosecutors say that police are not giving loiterers the notice required by the law before making arrests, Mr. Schmoke said. That causes many cases to be dismissed.

The bottom line: The law, hailed by Mr. Schmoke as a valuable crime-fighting tool when it was passed in 1989, has not made a dent in the city's open-air drug markets.

"Residents are simply saying to me that, in their view, drug-free zone simply means that's where all the drugs are," the mayor said.

The problem is not a lack of arrests. Police say they made 7,316 arrests in Baltimore's drug-free zones last year.

Despite those arrests, Mr. Schmoke said, the city's open-air drug markets are prospering. "Drug sellers have become bold. Sometimes they just stand there and stare down police."

Drug dealers sometimes even set up "sacrificial lambs" to be run in by police on drug-free zone violations, he said. Those offenders tie up hours of police time, while the drug market continues its business.

From the beginning, the law faced serious scrutiny in Baltimore because some City Council members and several civil rights groups felt that it would lead to widespread abuse by police. In addition, there were the constitutional questions arising with many anti-loitering laws, which infringe on people's right to assemble.

Last February, Maryland's Court of Appeals dismissed charges against a man arrested for loitering and drug violations in a Baltimore drug-free zone.

Without confronting the constitutionality of the zones, the high court overturned the conviction, saying that the man was arrested during an illegal search and seizure. The court said the ordinance required that a police officer tell the man to leave the area and to arrest him only if he refused.

Baltimore State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms, the city's chief prosecutor, said the law can be salvaged. "If used properly, the positives outweigh the negatives. If it is coupled with other kinds of police enforcement, it can be effective."

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