Operators of 2 adult stores sue Balto. Co.

Lawsuits contend law regulating videos, books is illegal and fines unfair

$600,000 is sought in action

August 06, 2002|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

The operators of two adult video and book stores are suing Baltimore County for $600,000, claiming the ordinance that regulates them is illegal and the fines imposed are unfair.

710 Merritt Boulevard Inc., which operates a store in Dundalk, and 5648 Southwestern Boulevard, which runs one in Halethorpe, say that the county's adult entertainment law may force them to move because it unfairly restricts adult stores to manufacturing districts. The two stores are in business districts.

"The Baltimore County Adult Entertainment Law requires Plaintiff to submit to an unconstitutional licensing scheme in order to relocate," according to one of the two lawsuits filed Friday in county Circuit Court.

County Attorney Edward J. Gillis declined to comment on the suits yesterday.

But Howard J. Schulman, the lawyer for the stores, said the county's adult entertainment law is a "veiled attempt" to prohibit adult video and book stores, which is unconstitutional.

"In effect, the law really leaves no place for these stores to operate," Schulman said.

He acknowledged that a lawsuit with similar claims was filed against the county and rejected by U.S. District Court Judge Frederic N. Smalkin two years ago.

Smalkin's ruling was affirmed by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year.

But Schulman said that Maryland's courts have yet to decide the issue. A challenge to a Howard County ordinance regulating adult video stores is being reviewed by the Court of Appeals, he said.

The Baltimore County law restricts adult video stores to heavy-manufacturing districts and requires that they operate at least 1,000 feet from schools, homes, churches or parks.

Under the law, stores that have less than 20 percent of their stock or floor space dedicated to adult materials can remain in business districts.

The law was passed by the County Council in February 1998, and gave adult stores a year to relocate.

But the suits allege that the law and the way county officials enforce it are unfair.

In one of the lawsuits, the adult stores allege that the law is "vague, ambitious, overly broad and lacking in standards so as to be subject to manipulation" by county regulators, who may levy hefty fines. The suit seeks $600,000 in compensatory and punitive damages.

Schulman said yesterday that the ordinance gives code inspectors too much discretion over what material is adult in content and what material is family oriented.

"The law allows the administrative official to do what he wants," Schulman said. "The same person who cites you for not having a building permit, or having a junked car, is determining what's adult and what's not adult."

5648 Southwestern Boulevard was initially fined $68,200 in July of last year after a year of warnings to reduce its stock of adult materials or relocate, county records show. A few days later, 710 Merritt Boulevard Inc. was fined $54,000 after months of the same warnings, the records show.

Both fines were later reduced to $15,000.

The accompanying lawsuit says that it is unfair for county officials to require those fined to post a bond equal to the amount of the fine before their case will be heard by the county Board of Appeals, the final step in the administrative appeals process.

Such a bond requirement "works as an unconstitutional deprivation of due process," the suit says.

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