Police use speedy evictions in stepped-up drug battle

June 04, 1995|By Ed Heard | Ed Heard,Sun Staff Writer

The men puffing the marijuana "blunts" on the corner near his west Columbia home annoy 18-year-old Tony Bright. "They're trying to destroy us," he says. "I wish it was different."

Howard County police and landlords want to see a change, too. So, for the past 18 months, Howard police have devoted two detectives to using a speedy nuisance abatement program -- evictions -- to deal with people they say are using or selling drugs from rental housing.

The evictions -- which can take place within two weeks of drug arrests -- are part of a multipronged law enforcement thrust, including drug raids and residential trash searches.

Howard police say they are trying to stop drug activity before it grows in the county as it has in urban areas. They are particularly concerned about burgeoning drug scenes at some of Howard's lower-income rental developments, which sometimes draw patrons and dealers from Baltimore and Washington.

In the past, landlords could evict a tenant only after months of legal wrangling. But under a 1992 state law, police departments were given the ammunition they needed to root out troublemakers quickly.

Now, a resident charged with possessing drugs in his home or selling them there can face a civil hearing and be evicted within three days.

"It comes down to quality of life in the community," said Lt. Jeff Spaulding, head of the vice and narcotics section. "If we can get drugs out, we'll remove a lot of fear."

Legal rights advocates criticize the quick eviction process, which they say jeopardizes potentially innocent people's housing arrangements before a criminal trial and a conviction.

"To kick them out is no trifling thing," said Stuart Comstock-Gay, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union in Baltimore. "I'm concerned when we try to speed up that too much, and people aren't given a chance to defend themselves."

Countywide, the Police Department handled 25 nuisance abatement cases in 1994; two are still active. At least 20 of the cases -- all resulting from drug offenses -- ended in evictions, police say. This year, 12 of 17 such cases are active. Almost all of the cases are in subsidized housing.

In most cases, residents decide to move after officers post signs about the eviction process.

The case against Michael Vernon Lardner Jr., 23, is typical. Police searched his home Jan. 24 in the 3700 block of St. Paul St. in Ellicott City, and reported that they found him and three friends smoking marijuana in a living room. Two-foot marijuana plants growing in closets were confiscated, police said.

Mr. Lardner, facing drug charges, was forced out a month later after police spoke with his landlord. Family members say Mr. Lardner now lives on Bond Street in Baltimore.

He was one of four people evicted this year through the nuisance abatement process. Twelve similar cases this year have not been closed, police said.

Although the drug problem in Howard County does not compare with those in nearby metropolitan areas, the high-income county makes for a lucrative market for dealers.

And that creates other troubles -- loitering, vandalism, strong-arm robberies, burglaries and thefts from cars -- in neighborhoods and creates a difficult environment for young people such as Mr. Bright.

"It makes no sense," said Mr. Bright, who lives in the Rideout Heath development in Columbia's Wilde Lake village. "It can hurt little children."

Management companies that run the rental properties are usually willing to help police so that drug dealers don't ruin the image of the developments.

"It really helps us flush out people who are known distributors," said Elsie Walters, executive director of the Columbia Housing Corp. (CHC), which owns 360 housing units in Howard County. About 200 of them are subsidized homes in Columbia, where Howard police have focused many of their drug raids.

"I hope that law stays in effect," said Barbara Reed, chairwoman of the Roslyn Rise Community Association in Wilde Lake and president of a board made up of residents from the five CHC-owned developments. "It's very helpful."

Ms. Reed said she has seen many evictions and has watched the community heal after them.

"It was really intimidating. There was a drug hangout, and people were afraid. We didn't have to live like that, like victims in our own homes," said Ms. Reed, who has lived in her townhouse for 24 years. "But now most of it's gone, and it's more peaceful."

Many believe the program is a success, but it has been criticized for harming other residents in units where drug activity is observed. Some cases involve women whose boyfriends are selling drugs or addicts who live with their parents.

Eleanor Johnson, 56, said she was wrongly blamed for drug activity at her Wilde Lake home.

Narcotics detectives and a tactical team stormed through her Rideout Heath townhouse's front door Feb. 1 while she and about six other family members and friends sat in a living room eating fish and watching television.

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