Harford weighs options to counter Edgewood crime

Nighttime curfews, suing landlords are considered

July 22, 2006|By JUSTIN FENTON | JUSTIN FENTON,SUN REPORTER

Harford County officials, concerned about a persistent crime problem in Edgewood, are considering imposing a nighttime curfew on juveniles and suing landlords to evict tenants who engage in criminal activity.

The county plans to start by aggressively using a state law rarely enforced here that uses civil lawsuits to force out occupants of a property who engage in drug activity, said State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly.

The nuisance ordinance is used often in Baltimore, where more than 10,000 suits have been filed by the state's attorneys office and community groups since the law was enacted in 1991. The city, as well as Prince George's, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, also has broadened the ordinance to include code violations that "significantly affect" or endanger other residents of the neighborhood.

"The state law only deals with drugs - we have other problems and we want the same ability to evict tenants and hold landlords accountable," Cassilly said. "[Other jurisdictions] have those statutes, and we think we need those statutes."

Officials have been sparked into action after the shooting death of a 20-year-old Edgewood man last week. The man, who was awaiting trial on drug distribution charges, was shot on a weekday afternoon in front of a townhouse. The gunman remains at large.

A year ago, a similar push was initiated after a father of nine was shot in the head by two members of a local gang. The sheriff's office held public seminars on how to spot and report gang activity, and appealed to federal and state agencies for grants available to local police. State Sen. Nancy Jacobs also proposed a successful state bill making it illegal to recruit for a gang.

Nuisance ordinances and a daytime curfew were discussed then but not implemented, officials said. Cassilly said the nuisance law has been used sparingly in Harford County, typically in Aberdeen and Havre de Grace.

"We're going to start with the existing state ordinances right away," Cassilly said. "But there are some places that are problem places we can't touch with existing state law, and we'll probably dust off a county ordinance to give us the same powers as other jurisdictions."

While those jurisdictions report success using eviction lawsuits, curfews bring the potential for controversy.

In 1995, state delegates representing Anne Arundel, Howard and Prince George's counties proposed a youth curfew that would have covered much of central Maryland but abandoned the legislation, noting concerns about violating constitutional rights and the potential for selective enforcement.

"They're expensive and don't actually solve the crime problem," said Meredith Curtis, a spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union. "You're teaching [kids] to not trust the police and creating a further wedge of this impacted community and the larger community."

In the mid-1990s, hundreds of U.S. cities enacted laws that made it illegal for juveniles to be unsupervised in public places after a certain hour. But many of the curfew laws have been challenged in court.

Curfews have been struck down in places such as Washington and Frederick, but still exist in Prince George's County and Baltimore City.

Jansen Robinson, president of the Edgewood Community Council and a former school police chief in Baltimore and Washington, said officials need to look at a comprehensive solution. He also wants to see truancy legislation enacted, but as part of a larger plan.

"These are just Band-Aids, and it's because of a failure to involve the community," he said.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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