In a blow to civic groups trying to rid their neighborhoods of drug dealers, the state's highest court ruled yesterday that city officials cannot bulldoze buildings just because they are obvious fronts for narcotics sales.
The Maryland Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that nuisance abatement laws, though written broadly, "would not extend to the destruction of a building which is used for unlawful activity."
The opinion prevents the city from razing the Springhill Market in Park Heights, which a District Court judge ordered demolished two years ago after complaints from police and residents that the sparsely stocked store was a virtual shopping center for illegal substances.
Henri Thompson, executive director of the Park Heights-Reisterstown Corridor Coalition, called it "a sad day for the community. The ones who make these decisions don't live here. They don't have the opportunity to see what this community looks like."
The store, owned by Allen B. Becker, who lives in Owings Mills, remains boarded. Becker's lawyer, Ira L. Oring, said there were no immediate plans for the building, in the 2900 block of Springhill Ave.
"My client had no role in the activity that went on there," Oring said. "When he learned of the problem, he terminated the lease."
Fighting the demolition, the attorney said, "was a matter of principle as much as a matter of trying to save his property."
This was the first test of a planned citywide assault on suspected drug houses in Baltimore, which came after news accounts of slum landlords using property to hide proceeds from the drug trade and as fronts to sell drugs.
Park Heights residents mobilized against the Springhill Market issue, and about 50 of them chartered a bus to Becker's quarter-million-dollar home in 1999 and demanded improvements to dozens of his properties in Baltimore.
They won a victory in March 1999 when District Judge Timothy J. Doory ruled that "the people in this neighborhood have suffered enough" from drug trafficking linked to the market.
Citing the state's nuisance abatement law, he ordered the market knocked down. His decision was upheld by the Circuit Court.
At a Court of Appeals hearing in March last year, Assistant Attorney General Andrew H. Baida noted that "razing this building may seem like an extreme action, ... but this case calls for an extreme response."
Yesterday, Baida said he was not surprised by the court's ruling, noting some tough questions during oral arguments last March. He said state lawmakers might want to strengthen the nuisance abatement law to give government the authority to raze troublesome properties.
But Baida said the case accomplished its goals, even if they are limited. He noted that the market is boarded, and the manager who the court said allowed drug dealers to operate there is gone.
"This sends a clear message to landlords and property owners that they better be careful of how their property is used," Baida said.
Baida noted that the Court of Appeals hearing room was packed with Park Heights residents. The market, he said, "had a horrible impact on the community, and the community fought back."
The court's ruling did not dispute that the market was a front for drug dealers. The judges pointed to testimony from five city police officers who said "drug users went into the grocery store and purchased drugs from employees behind the counter."
But the seven-judge panel ruled that even that does not give government the authority to bulldoze the building under the nuisance abatement law.
They noted that authorities had no proof that Becker knew of or tolerated drug activity, and that the problem was abated by terminating the lease with the manager. "The remedy prescribed should be no greater than is necessary to achieve the desired result," the ruling says.