Anne Arundel tactic in drug battle faulted

October 22, 1994|By John Rivera and Gregory P. Kane | John Rivera and Gregory P. Kane,Sun Staff Writers

Anne Arundel County prosecutors have ordered three suspected crack houses destroyed during the last two years and watched yesterday as Annapolis public works crews boarded up a fourth near the western boundary of the city.

They say their use of the "drug nuisance abatement law" has brought peace to some county neighborhoods, but defense lawyers and civil libertarians wonder if their methods aren't overkill.

"I have a problem with draconian laws that sort of apply the nuclear bomb effect to enforcement of drug laws," said Richard A. Finci, a Prince George's County defense lawyer and a member of the board of directors of the Maryland Criminal Defense Attorneys Association. "I don't believe it is an effective deterrent in the war on drugs."

Anne Arundel is the only jurisdiction in Maryland to have destroyed houses.

The law, which allows homes to be demolished without the homeowner having been convicted of a drug-related crime, "is a shortcut around the criminal justice system, and that's never a good thing," said Stuart Comstock-Gay, executive director of American Civil Liberties Union chapter in Maryland. "It's kind of half a step short of seizure and a whole step easier."

Such concerns matter little to the people living near the houses, however. They say there are genuine benefits, even if the change is only temporary.

Two years ago, Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee ordered a reputed crack and prostitution house on Spring Road in Bacontown, near Laurel, destroyed. Sharron Newman, who lives in the area, is glad county officials took action.

"Drug traffic still goes on, but not as much," she said.

"Clearly, there was" a drop in drug activity, said Capt. Timothy Bowman, commander of Anne Arundel's Western Police District. The house itself was a gathering place for users of illicit narcotics."

The law, which went into effect in July 1991, was designed to give community groups a way to fight drug activity in their neighborhoods.

"It allows community associations the right to go into court, which in Maryland usually they can't," said Michael Sarbanes, a lawyer with the Community Law Center, a nonprofit organization that offers legal advice to community groups.

The center has joined with the Baltimore City state's attorney's office and the Community Anti-drug Assistance Project to help associations in seven city neighborhoods use the law.

Baltimore uses law

Baltimore has invoked the law in 200 cases. Most were settled with the property owners before trial. Community associations in Baltimore also have succeeded in getting the city to board up abandoned rowhouses that had become crack dens.

The nuisance abatement law is different from drug forfeiture laws in Maryland because prosecutors don't have to prove the real estate was acquired through drug profits and don't have to win a conviction against the homeowner.

"You need to be able to show, by a preponderance of evidence that the house is being used for drug activity," Mr. Sarbanes said. "And that's fairly widely defined in the statute."

The law also doesn't explicitly mention demolition as an available remedy, but it allows plenty of room for interpretation.

"There is one section that says 'the court can issue an injunction or order other equitable relief.' It's those two words -- 'injunction' and 'equitable' -- that give the court its sweeping power," said Trevor A. Kiessling Jr., the assistant prosecutors who heads Anne Arundel County's forfeiture unit.

"Demolition is one of those actions the court can order when demolition best solves the problem," Mr. Kiessling said.

But demolition of the house that prosecutors took over yesterday, which had been declared a common nuisance, would not best solve the problem, Mr. Weathersbee said.

"This house can still be used," he explained. "The first three houses had health and code violations so dramatic we felt we had to start all over again. Our intent has never been to destroy a house but to eliminate a nuisance."

The city of Annapolis lent the owner, Elmira Parker of Hyattsville, more than $21,000 to rehabilitate the building. Now the house can be sold and the city can recover its money, Mr. Weathersbee said.

'Constitutionally sound'

The statute stands on two principles grounded in the Constitution, legal experts say. The principle that underlies eminent domain holds that all property ultimately belongs to the state and that police powers allow the state to remove any threat to the public health, welfare and safety.

"Constitutionally, it's a sound approach," said Royal Shannonhouse, a retired University of Baltimore law professor who specialized in property law.

In Anne Arundel, two homeowners agreed to demolition because they risked forfeiture and could have lost their entire interest in the property. The owners were required to sell the land or never return to it. In each case, the county charged the owner for the demolition.

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