Taking new tack in enforcement of trespass laws

A Police Department initiative will standardize procedures

May 07, 2006|By MELISSA HARRIS | MELISSA HARRIS,SUN REPORTER

Calvin Reed, the new general manager of the Jessup truck stop on Route 175, wishes that his unofficial books of those banned from the premises - two three-ring binders brimming with mug shots of bad boys (and girls) dating to 1995 - were thinner.

The binders contain pages protected in plastic sleeves that list information on prostitutes caught darting between rows of parked semis, "lumpers" who loiter on the property in the early morning begging for money or looking for work and thieves and drug dealers.

However, these binders - each one thicker than most family Bibles - soon will become nothing more than reference books, removed from behind the cashiers' counter and shelved in a basement office. In their place will be a much thinner collection of Police Department-approved banning forms as part of a new program to standardize the county's enforcement of trespass laws.

Judges, the prosecutor's office, lawyers for Howard County government and police have signed off on the forms and a new set of rules that dictate how owners of private property keep ne'er-do-wells away. Maj. William McMahon, deputy chief of police, initiated the effort after learning of a similar program in Washington state. Thirty Howard County property owners have joined the program, McMahon said.

The biggest benefit, participants say, is that police now have the authority to arrest trespassers without the property owner's knowledge.

"For years and years, we've had problems with kids getting into swimming pools overnight, and it's hard to find the property owner at 3 a.m. or someone who knows they're banned," McMahon said. "It was a struggle to [arrest trespassers] efficiently. Now if a property owner enters into an agreement with us, and we catch someone doing certain things on their property at 3 a.m., we can start the banning process right there or enforce an existing one."

Howard County property owners participating in the program can ban someone only for up to one year. People who have been banned also are notified of their right to appeal the decision. McMahon said both rules protect civil liberties and ensure that judges won't throw out trespass violations should a scofflaw be caught on the property again.

"I've been in the shopping center business for 20 years, and every property had some sort of ban notice, but it's unusual to have something this formal that has been vetted by everyone in the process," said Karen Geary, manager of The Mall in Columbia. "It's unusual, but it's a wonderful, solid process. Everybody understands what the steps are."

For instance, if someone started a fistfight at The Mall in Columbia, one of Geary's security officers would take information on the offender, complete the banning form, serve it and then fax or mail a copy of it to the Police Department's Southern District station. The mall also could serve the notice via certified mail.

A clerk at Southern District station would enter information on the banned person into a police database, which patrol officers can access from computers in their cars. If an officer later encounters that person on mall property and enters his or her name in a search field, the person would be flagged as banned, and the officer could arrest that person immediately.

Reed said that he has received his first request to testify in a trespassing case under the program. He also said that a fence will be built around the truck stop parking lot. There will be one gated entrance - another way to keep out those who are not wanted.

"We're making sure that this is a safe environment so that we can stop banning people," Reed said.

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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