Repeal of drug zones law is sought

Baltimore judges, prosecutors did not uphold measure

January 15, 1999|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke will ask the City Council to eliminate Baltimore's "drug-free zones" law because city prosecutors and judges did not uphold it.

Schmoke will make the request on behalf of Baltimore Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier, who wants the council to help devise legislation that would allow officers to more effectively seize illegal guns and drugs.

The council established 50 drug-free zones in 1989 during the "Just say no to drugs" movement. In the zones, located around schools and high-crime areas, police are allowed to search and arrest loiterers. The council added 10 zones in 1994.

Baltimore did not prosecute almost all of the people arrested by police in drug-free zones during the first nine months of 1998, a West Baltimore councilman's recent research showed.

In the survey, conducted by 4th District Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., 25 of 26 misdemeanor loitering arrests in the 60 zones were not prosecuted. Misdemeanors in Maryland are punishable by up to two years in jail and a $2,000 fine. Four of the 30 people arrested in the zone during the study period spent time in jail.

Prosecutors and judges have opposed the law because they consider it an infringement on the constitutional right to assemble. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on a similar Chicago loitering law used to remove gangs from street corners. During recent arguments before the Supreme Court, justices expressed concern about the law.

Baltimore police have welcomed the zones, saying they give officers probable cause for searches and seizures. Police officers worry that removing the law will hamper their ability to answer resident complaints.

Maj. James L. Hawkins, police commander of the Eastern District, said yesterday that his officers handle about 20 percent of the city's 80,000 emergency calls each month. Most, he said, are complaints about people loitering on street corners.

The drug-free zone law gives officers probable cause to move people along and frisk them. "It's going to be quite interesting how we can effectively deal with those concerns without this tool," Hawkins said.

Clogged court system

Schmoke noted that the city's circuit courts are so clogged that four first-degree murder suspects were set free because their cases were not heard before the expiration of the state's speedy trial deadline. He said police handling the loitering cases can be better used fighting crime.

Mitchell called for the abolition of the zones, saying they are a waste of police effort.

In addition, a study on how Baltimore handles crime is expected to recommend that the city become more aggressive in searches and seizures to intercept illegal drugs and guns, Schmoke said.

"We need the ability for police to intervene to find weapons on the street," Schmoke said. "I'm very, very aware of how intrusive that can be so we're working together on the protocol, because we don't want to see an increase in complaints against police."

The Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union welcomes the abolition of the drug-free zones. ACLU officials cautioned city leaders to wait until after the Supreme Court ruling before drafting new legislation.

"We've been traditionally concerned about loitering laws and their potential for misuse," said Dwight H. Sullivan, the chapter's managing attorney. "Before we adopt any new legislation, we want to see what the Supreme Court says about that case."

Circuit Court takeover

In addition to removing the drug-free zones, Schmoke said he will push for the state to take over the Circuit Court system in Baltimore and throughout the state. Gov. Parris N. Glendening plans to follow through on his proposal for the takeover during the current legislative session, Schmoke said.

Schmoke also said that the city will seek $2 million from the state to help Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy upgrade her office's computer system to better track cases. The $2 million state grant would be matched with $2 million in city funds, Schmoke said.

Last year, America's 10 largest cities reported a 12 percent drop in murders, compared with 1997, while the number of Baltimore murders rose from 312 to 314. The city asked a Harvard University professor to study Baltimore's crime-fighting strategy and suggest ways to help the city more effectively intercept illegal guns.

"We are not moving in the right direction," Schmoke said. "We can't let these numbers go in the direction they continue to go."

Sun staff writer Peter Hermann contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 1/15/99

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