Frederick's ban on unaccompanied visitors challenged Policy aims to lower crime in public housing areas

December 30, 1998|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

Seventeen-year-old Jason Diggs has been arrested four times in two years for visiting his cousins who live across the street. The crime: trespassing in Frederick.

"I get angrier and angrier each time this comes up," said Marita Peters, his mother. "I can't go visit relatives."

Diggs' record resulted from a policy the Frederick Housing Authority implemented in 1994 to reduce crime. Enforced by local police, it bars nonresidents from entering public housing property unless accompanied by a resident.

Some of the city's more than 1,029 public housing residents say the rule unfairly restricts and opens their guests up to criminal prosecution for taking a stroll.

This week, the rule's opponents and supporters got their day in federal court in Baltimore, where U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake is considering opponents' request to have the policy suspended until it can be fully examined in a trial.

After testimony yesterday and Monday from Frederick officials and residents, Blake did not say when she will issue her decision.

Residents and officials defended the no-trespassing rule, arguing that limiting foot traffic from outsiders -- whom many blame for rampant drug dealing, loitering and unsafe streets -- has lowered crime rates dramatically.

Drop in drug incidents

The Frederick authority reported this summer that 78 drug-related incidents occurred on its properties last year, compared with 205 in 1993. Homicides also have dropped.

Charlie Smith Jr., former executive director of the Frederick Housing Authority, who launched the policy and testified yesterday on its merits, likened the area to a war zone.

"There was open-air drug marketing and the gambling was terrible. People were like prisoners in their own homes," he said.

Toya Foreman, who has lived in the Sagner public housing complex for eight years, testified that the area has improved. "Your children can come out and play. There is no traffic like there was before. You can have a picnic if you want to."

But many residents -- and their attorneys from the Baltimore-based Public Justice Center, which filed suit against housing officials and police in May -- say the policy goes too far, forcing friends and relatives to sneak when visiting.

Only crime 'being present'

"Their [only] crime is being present," Daniel Q. Mahone, a Frederick-based attorney involved in the issue for several years, said in an interview.

Marita Peters and her children live in a private home across from the public housing apartments where her relatives live. "My son and daughter are not allowed to go over and play with their friends. This sounds like the America my grandmother lived in way back when."

Mahone added: "If you apply this [policy] to every community, what do we have? Gathering is the nature of community -- and the community is being told they cannot formulate these types of relationships."

In recent years, housing authorities nationwide have stepped up efforts to fight crime. Only Frederick has banned visitors, say those involved in the lawsuit.

In Frederick, officials target trespassers who have been arrested for drug-related or violent crimes, said Teresa Ham, executive director of the city's Housing Authority. Her office keeps a log of all such people, as well as those who have received trespass warnings, and forbids their access to public housing, she said.

But in testimony yesterday, Ham acknowledged that the policy was not specified in writing, and residents were never informed of its details. She said she removed or added names to the log at her discretion.

Peters said her son, Jason Diggs, did not have a criminal record when he was first arrested for trespassing. More than 900 people have been permanently banned from the city's six Housing Authority properties.

Under cross-examination by plaintiff's attorney Daniel F. Goldstein, Ham acknowledged no standard exists for logging names. She said she has received no complaints from residents.

'Could stand improvement'

Asked if she fears regression if the rule is suspended, Ham said, "Yes, basically, that drug activity will increase and the number of people loitering -- who have no reason to be there -- will increase."

One resident interviewed, Diane Hardiman, defended the trespassing policy but acknowledged it is restrictive. "It could stand improvement," she said. "But it protects the community."

Pub Date: 12/30/98

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