Party-pooper city officials don't mind wasting a buck on for a day in court

Comment

Anne Arundel viewpoints

October 17, 1999|By Norris West

ANNAPOLIS CITY leaders, who whined about footing the bill for a New Year's Eve celebration expenses, apparently aren't so tight with a buck when it comes to a potentially costly day in court.

The city was ready to let Annapolis First Night proceed without its participation and on city-owned properties because it didn't want to absorb the cost of police overtime and cleanup. Fortunately, Annapolis-based USinternetworking Inc. bailed out the city by agreeing to kick in $18,000 for the annual celebration.

But the Annapolis mayor and city council didn't mind the financial repercussions of approving an anti-loitering law last week. It is similar to an anti-loitering ordinance in Chicago that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down earlier this year. The worthy goals of the Chicago and Annapolis bills -- reducing crime and drug-dealing -- don't negate legitimate civil liberties' concerns.

Annapolis' new ordinance prohibits anyone convicted of a drug crime within the past seven years from loitering in public housing developments and other private properties where at least three drug arrests have occurred in a year. Those with clean records may have little to fear, but those looking to turn around their lives will forfeit their freedom beyond the terms of probation.

Dwight Sullivan, a lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said he knows of at least one man convicted of a drug offense who contends he will be adversely affected by the ordinance.

Can't stand on the street

The man, convicted in 1997, entered a Christian counseling program last year and has reformed his life, Mr. Sullivan said. The new law, however, makes it illegal for him to stand in some areas of Annapolis.

The ACLU plans to challenge the law when the first drug loitering-free zone is established.

Strangely, the law comes just as police are reporting inroads against open-air drug markets.

The Annapolis Police Department took no stand on the loitering law when it was being hotly debated, but Lt. Robert Beans, a police spokesman, says the measure will give police another tool for crime prevention. He said 72 block captains were energized during a meeting the day after council passed the bill.

But Annapolis Housing Authority Executive Director Patricia Croslan has already helped instruct residents on how to combat street-corner dealers, Lieutenant Beans said.

That is making a big difference even without an anti-loitering law. Housing officials have held regular meetings with the community to help them identify behavior associated with drug dealing. Residents have been able to give police good descriptions and other important details when they suspect someone of selling drugs near their homes.

"We're getting more calls about drug dealing and gambling than we ever have," Lieutenant Beans said.

Officials might look at Annapolis's Bloomsbury Square, a public housing development that is safe and livable without an anti-loitering law.

Bloomsbury Square's proximity to state government offices and St. John's College admittedly is among the reasons for that. It is a small, open development where potential dealers likely may find it difficult to hide.

But it also seems that open-air drug dealing isn't tolerated there by residents, police, housing authority officials or state legislators who walk and drive past the development during the legislative session.

Bloomsbury suggests that it takes intolerance of crime, not of loitering, to make a community safe.

The sponsor of Annapolis' loitering law, Alderman Herbert H. McMillan, says he believes the measure will withstand a legal challenge.

The money it will take to find out could fund more than a few New Year's Eve celebrations.

Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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