In an effort to disrupt drug dealing outside of corner convenience stores operating in residential neighborhoods, a Baltimore councilwoman is pushing for legislation that would give police the authority to temporarily close such businesses.
If Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke's bill is approved, Baltimore police would be armed with a power once enacted during some of the city's worst years of drug violence in the early 1990s.
While some council members express concern about punishing business owners for activities of people congregating outside their stores, most side with Clarke and community leaders who say temporary curfews might stem the foot traffic fueling the drug trade in many neighborhoods.
The bill "would target stores in the quiet heart of residential neighborhoods, where it's easy for customers to get in and out of, but hard for police to patrol," said Clarke, who introduced the measure at the council's Dec. 5 meeting. "This is not intended for stores in active commercial corridors."
The bill is waiting to be reviewed by several city agencies, including the police and law departments, and will be scheduled for a hearing before the council's judiciary and legislative investigations committee.
The measure closely mirrors a law that was introduced March 9, 1992, and supported by Clarke and then-Councilman Martin O'Malley. It was imposed for a year but only applied to stores in designated drug-free zones of the city. Under the earlier law, curfews could only be imposed between midnight and 6 a.m.
Clarke and Robert Nowlin, a Pen Lucy neighborhood activist, said the curfew never had to be formally implemented because the threat of it was enough to get business owners to take action to keep their corners clear of loiterers.
"It worked very well," Nowlin said. "I think it's a very good idea to reinstitute."
Nowlin and others said they believe that drug dealing on street corners in residential neighborhoods is reaching worrisome levels and that this law would provide police with another tool to break up the traffic.
"People buy drugs the way they buy other products," Clarke said. "If you break the cycle, you help break up the trade."
The new curfew legislation applies to businesses on residentially zoned streets or those that are within one block of churches or schools. Before the police commissioner could impose a curfew, a community association or police commander would need to present a petition showing that the store is "the focal point" for the "loitering or gathering" of people who intend to "engage in unlawful drug related activity," the bill states.
Stores could be closed for up to six hours a day, depending on when drug activity is most evident. The law would bar the police from implementing the restriction for more than 120 days in any six-month period.
Owners are provided with a 30-day notice before a curfew is imposed, giving them time to formally fight the maneuver. When store owners protest, the police commissioner would be required to investigate to determine if they have done enough to discourage loiterers outside their establishments.
Shop owners can avoid the imposition by proving that they provide adequate security or by disproving the assertion that their stores are focal points for drug activities. The bill, which allows for court appeals, also calls for imposing fines of up to $1,000 or 30 days in jail for stores that violate curfews.
The stores, Clarke said, "serve no convenience to the residents, and they're a nuisance because of the drug trade" they attract.
She pointed to two convenience stores on a corner in the Northeast Baltimore neighborhood of Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello.
Clarke said many neighbors have complained to her about the drug dealing that gravitates to the corner.
Councilwoman Helen L. Holton said the specifics of the bill need to be studied carefully to make sure concerns of business owners are taken into consideration. Holton said she wanted to make sure the curfew law does not expose the city to lawsuits if it does not provide adequate protest provisions for owners.
"I think there's a lot to be explained before we say, `This is a great idea, let's do it,'" Holton said.
But, she added, she supports the concept behind the bill because it puts problem businesses "on notice that we're not going to tolerate" their contribution to the drug trade.
"The sad reality is that many of the owners of these corner stores don't live in the community," Holton said.
Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. said he supports the bill as a tool for police to disrupt drug dealing and to force business owners to become more involved.
"This is going to force their hand to be part of the process," Harris said. "If you want to do business in our neighborhoods, you have to be part of the solution."