Schools violate alarm law the most But county has declined to collect $25,000 in fines for false burglar calls

November 05, 1995|By Mike Farabaugh | Mike Farabaugh,SUN STAFF

The primary offender of Harford County's law on false burglar alarms is the Board of Education, but the county has declined to collect more than $25,000 in fines, officials said.

Sheriff Joseph P. Meadows, whose agency is charged with tracking violators and reporting them to the county government, said the false alarm law states that the county "may" -- not "shall" -- pursue collection in the courts.

That means collection is not mandatory, the sheriff said.

But, he added, it may be time to review the law to determine whether it is fulfilling its purpose.

"Any law may be able to be strengthened," Sheriff Meadows said. "It may be time to ask the county to take another look and decide if our law can be improved.

"Other counties and other police agencies struggle with false alarms. Perhaps we have the best law right now, but maybe there are some new ideas out there to consider," he said.

Sheriff's deputies are required by Harford's law to investigate each alarm, checking for signs of a break-in. Deputies responded to more than 7,700 false alarms countywide last year, said Sgt. Edward Hopkins, a spokesman for the sheriff's office.

The most frequent Board of Education offender in 1994 was Fountain Green Elementary School with 33 false alarms, he said. The high school and middle school in Edgewood had 29 and 27 false alarms, respectively.

At a property as large as the Edgewood High, it takes two deputies 30 to 45 minutes to walk the perimeter of the building and property, he said.

If they find no evidence of forced entry -- and barring other natural causes such as severe storms, high wind or electrical power interruptions -- the deputies file a false alarm report.

Harford government figures show its treasurer collected $35,500 for excessive false alarms in fiscal 1995, which ended June 30.

In that same period, sheriff's office figures show that more than $25,000 in fines for false alarms at Board of Education property were sent to the county for collection, but the county wrote off those fines, said Ernest A. Crofoot, county attorney.

The law determines how fines are to be assessed. If a home or business owner is cited for more than three false alarms in a calendar month, a $25 fine is assessed by the county.

A fifth violation in the same month draws a $50 fine; a sixth costs $75.

For more than eight violations in a calendar year, offenders are assessed $150 for each false alarm.

Mr. Crofoot said the law is doing what it was intended to do. "It has made us aware that the alarm systems in many of the county schools are a problem."

Mr. Crofoot said it was his decision not to collect the fines from the Board of Education.

Money from fines goes into the county's general fund. Collecting fines from the Board of Education would only mean money was being transferred from one county bank account to another, Mr. Crofoot said.

He said some reported false alarms may have been caused by vandals whose break-in attempts were aborted before deputies arrived.

"The sheriff's office is doing its job, and doing it well," he said.

If an alarm was sounded at 2 a.m., for example, Mr. Crofoot said it's quite possible a deputy looking for evidence of a break-in in the dark might miss pry marks on a door, or BB holes shot in a window minutes earlier.

"The deputy may decide it's a false alarm, when it really is an aborted break-in," Mr. Crofoot said.

The school board and the sheriff's office have discussed the problem, Mr. Crofoot said.

"The school board has had its alarms checked to make sure the systems are not too sensitive," he said.

The business with the most false alarms in fiscal 1995 was Mercedes-Benz of North America in Belcamp. Mercedes promptly paid Harford about $3,000 in fines during that span, a spokesman for the company said.

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