Judge rejects visitor ban in public housing

Frederick targeted `undesirables' in bid to cut drug crime

Statewide implications

Temporary order comes in federal suit filed by residents

July 17, 1999|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

In a major setback for Maryland authorities trying to control drugs flowing through public housing projects, a federal judge ruled yesterday that Frederick officials may no longer arbitrarily ban nonresidents from its properties.

Though the order is temporary, it has broad implications for how crime is fought in housing projects in Maryland and perhaps beyond. The issue boils down to the right of tenants to choose their friends and associates vs. the need to control the violence and destruction that comes with the drug trade.

"The people in public housing have an absolute right to safety and security," said Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Baltimore-based Public Justice Center, which filed the federal lawsuit seeking to end the ban on visitors. "We want to see those places be safe and secure and free from the difficulty of crime, but that's not what this policy did."

Since 1994, the Housing Authority of the City of Frederick has been among a growing number of agencies around the country that have banned nonresidents from its properties unless they are accompanied by a resident.

Frederick took the further step of banning nonresidents authorities deemed undesirable, usually because of criminal records. Residents found on housing authority properties in the company of those deemed undesirable faced eviction. Since the policy has been in effect, crime in the city's housing projects has decreased.

Almost 1,000 people were banned from the authority's six housing projects, and the policy led to hundreds of trespassing cases, including many against friends and relatives of residents who were on their way to meet them when they were cited. In other cases, people, among them a 10-year-old boy, were banned from visiting family members.

In her ruling yesterday, U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake, sitting in Baltimore, said the ban was overly broad and amounted to an illegal amendment tacked onto tenants' leases. She banned housing officials "from continuing the current trespass policy with respect to all persons, except for those placed on the trespass log as a result of violent or drug-related activity occurring on Housing Authority property."

The order is based partly on the judge's decision that the lawsuit against the ban has a likelihood of succeeding, a strong hint of how Blake might rule. A trial will be held this year or early next year for a final ruling, and the judge is likely to address constitutional concerns raised in the lawsuit.

Teresa Ham, the executive director for the housing authority, refused, through a secretary, to comment, but she testified in December that she feared "drug activity will increase and the number of people loitering -- who have no reason to be there -- will increase."

Capt. Harold Domer of the Frederick Police Department, also named in the lawsuit because the department enforces the authority's policy, said officials will discuss a new strategy to suppress crime in the projects.

"Obviously, we felt what we were doing was proper, but based on the ruling, we'll look at how to proceed," he said.

Officials have said the policy cut crime at the projects by more than half. By the authority's count, drug-related crimes declined from 205 in 1993, the year before the ban went into effect, to 78 last year.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of five residents who were kept from family members because of the ban. Kizzy Diggs, 21, who said the father of her daughter, Andresia, was not allowed to visit them in their apartment, said yesterday's ruling would open doors to many lost relatives.

"There's a whole lot of people up there who have family members they haven't been able to see," she said. "That was crazy, just crazy. Maybe now nobody has to worry about the police harassing them with this trespassing."

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