Community seeks limits to loitering

Neighborhood hopes law will rid streets of drug-related crime

`An everyday problem'

ACLU vows to fight ordinance, calling it a violation of rights

February 13, 2000|By Amy Oakes | Amy Oakes,SUN STAFF

A group of teens sits at the bus stop talking, while a few linger on the street. A pack of kids runs around the corner and down the hill to the park. Others stand outside their two-story homes and watch.

It's a typical afternoon in Newtowne Twenty, one of Annapolis' 10 public housing developments.

But some residents want that to change. They say there is too much loitering and drug dealing in their neighborhood off Newtowne Road, and they have asked the city for help.

The city council is scheduled to decide tomorrow whether to designate Newtowne Twenty as a "drug-loitering-free zone" -- the city's first application of an anti-loitering law approved last year. Several other neighborhoods have applied for the designation.

While the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland is poised to take the city to court over the law as soon as it is applied, longtime residents of Newtowne Twenty welcome the designation as a tool for police to make the neighborhood safe.

"I hope it does pass; we need it," said Doris Butler, who has lived in Newtowne Twenty for 29 years. "It will make it more comfortable to sit outside in the summer."

The law, which the council narrowly approved in October, allows communities to apply for "drug-loitering-free zone" status. If the status is granted, the ordinance gives police wider discretion to act against loiterers in the designated communities. The ordinance bars known drug offenders -- those convicted of drug possession, distribution or use in the past seven years -- from loitering in the designated communities.

Police officers can also move along people they suspect are dealing drugs within the communities.

The requirements

To qualify for the designation, a neighborhood must have had at least three arrests for drug-related activity in a two-year period before application. The council then can designate the community for two years, and the designation can be renewed.

Also scheduled to be introduced at tomorrow's meeting are resolutions to designate other "drug-loitering-free zones" at the Robinwood public housing neighborhood, the area within 500 feet of 24 Pleasant St. and the area within 500 feet of Monroe Street.

Anita Tyler, who lived at Newtowne Twenty for eight years before moving in December, said the residents' council applied for the designation to help protect the children.

Often, she said, children getting off the school bus in the afternoons have to maneuver through a crowd of teen-agers and young adults gathered at the stop. Groups huddle outside the recreation center and at the playground apparently selling drugs and gambling, she said.

"There have been several occasions in which children have picked up things like needles and condoms," Tyler said. "This type of stuff shouldn't be happening."

In the summer, Tyler said, people hang around outside day and night. They wander around the neighborhood or stand on the corners, talking to passing motorists.

"They are constantly selling drugs," Tyler said. "There hasn't been one incident or a particular situation. It's an everyday problem."

Annapolis Police Chief Joseph Johnson did not have information on the number of arrests at Newtowne Twenty, but he said, "They easily met the criteria." He called the law "an effective tool in that community."

But ask the teen-agers sitting at the bus stop or standing along the street, and they say the law will give police too much power. Many said they fear they will be harassed for doing what they do all the time.

"We stay in one spot," explained Tamika Matthews, 16. "We're just having fun."

When told about the resolution, Bobby Johnson, 18, said, "They need to mind their own business."

Legality questioned

Dwight Sullivan, chief counsel for the ACLU in Maryland, said the law is unconstitutional, specifically sections that prohibit engaging in apparent drug-related activity, such as making certain hand signals to drivers or passengers of passing vehicles, in the designated area, and that ban convicted drug users, possessors, sellers or buyers from remaining in the area. Sullivan said that if the Newtowne Twenty "drug-loitering-free zone" is approved, he will file a lawsuit within a week. He plans to ask a judge to declare the law unconstitutional and to order an injunction against applying it to other neighborhoods.

City Attorney Paul G. Goetzke said he is prepared to defend the law and file a motion that says it is constitutional.

"It is very much a theoretical argument without many factual disputes," Goetzke said.

Alderman Herbert H. McMillan, a Ward 5 Republican who wrote the anti-loitering bill last year, said the resolution is in response to the community's concerns.

"This is a neighborhood that has asked for a drug-loitering zone; they want it," McMillan said. "It doesn't make much sense to impede the progress."

H. Patricia Croslan, who heads the Housing Authority for the city of Annapolis, said residents there have expressed a need for increased safety.

"I think residents saw it as a necessity, so it became a necessity," she said.

Butler said she hasn't had any problems, but added that she avoids certain parts of the neighborhood. She doesn't walk near the entrance of Newtowne Twenty at night, nor does she allow her grandsons to go to the playground because she can't see it from her front step.

"There's a big difference between over there and here," said Butler, pointing toward the recreation center, which has worn "No Loitering" and anti-drug signs on the outside wall.

Seeking calm

Butler said she hopes the law will bring the same kind of calm to the neighborhood as a special state police community patrol did several years ago.

"It made you feel so comfortable," Butler said. "You had no problems at all."

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