1947 law may be used to stop loitering on street

March 17, 1994|By Donna E. Boller | Donna E. Boller,Sun Staff Writer

An old law is about to become a new weapon for Westminster's mayor, despite the possibility that enforcement will open civil liberties issues.

The 1947 law bars liquor license holders from selling alcohol to "a habitual drunkard or . . . a mentally deficient person" or to people whose relatives ask bartenders or package goods store owners not to serve them because they are "of intemperate habits or of unsound mind or on account of . . . [their] physical condition."

Mayor W. Benjamin Brown plans to use the law in a police crackdown to drive away some people who congregate on Main Street. Some members of the group say they drink alcoholic beverages.

Mr. Brown refused to say whether city police will be stationed outside the two local liquor stores targeted by the mayor to watch for habitual drunkards or mentally deficient individuals leaving with alcoholic beverages.

He said he plans to discuss enforcement at a private meeting next week with the police chief and the two merchants.

Jeff Caples, manager of the Carriage House, and Forest Howell, co-owner of Schmitt's Rexall -- the two downtown package goods stores involved -- said they have never received a letter from a relative asking them not to sell alcohol to an individual because of intemperate habits, unsound mind or physical condition.

Mr. Brown said he did not include Locust Wines and Cranberry Liquors, also in the city, because he believed the individuals he is attempting to remove from Main Street do not frequent those stores.

Carroll State's Attorney Thomas E. Hickman said he will prosecute license holders arrested for selling to people banned by the law. Mr. Hickman furnished a copy of the law to Mr. Brown after the mayor sought his advice.

Mr. Caples and Mr. Howell said they will obey the law, although both expressed reservations about whether refusing to sell alcohol will cause the street people to leave Main Street.

Stuart Comstock-Gay, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said he had never heard of the law. But he could see potential civil liberties issues after hearing a brief synopsis.

The term "mentally deficient" without a determining standard could violate anti-discrimination laws, Mr. Comstock-Gay said. He said the letter a relative may send to prevent someone from buying alcohol may violate anti-discrimination and equal protection laws.

He said he could not be certain whether the term "habitual drunkard" also posed civil liberties issues.

Mr. Caples said he was unsure whether obeying the law could expose him to lawsuits. "Hopefully, the people we refuse to sell to won't be able to afford lawyers," he said.

Mr. Howell said he saw the possibility of civil rights violations. "But reading the code there, it says [not to sell to] people a reasonable man would identify as habitual drunkards, and I think these individuals fall into that category," he said.

Mayor Brown bypassed the county liquor board in his 3-month-old campaign to get Main Street congregants to move elsewhere. The liquor board grants licenses and conducts hearings on charges of liquor law violations.

Mr. Brown said he consulted the state's attorney instead of the liquor board because, "When I think of law enforcement, I think of the state's attorney's office."

Russell Mayer, liquor board chairman and a retired Baltimore County police officer, said that he knew the 1947 law was on the books but that enforcement is very difficult.

"You better have proof, because you're open to the public to sell," Mr. Mayer said. "I wouldn't like to be in Rexall's shoes saying no to someone unless you have [grounds for refusal] in writing from someone."

The law applies to eight Maryland counties, including Carroll. Violation is a misdemeanor carrying a $50 fine for the first offense and a $100 fine or 30 days in jail for subsequent offenses.

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