Public nuisances

Our view : The city should have more power to regulate liquor sales

August 18, 2008

For weeks, police have been trying to use the city's public nuisance law to shut down Linden Bar and Liquors, a West Baltimore packaged goods store that has been the target of frequent complaints about drug dealing on the premises and was the scene of a recent fatal shooting. The difficulties authorities have had trying to padlock an establishment that has seen a rash of violent incidents over that past 24 months suggests the nuisance law is at best a very cumbersome tool.

Small liquor stores, which often dominate corners in the city's poorest, most distressed neighborhoods, are magnets for trouble, from vagrancy and loitering to drug dealing and violent assaults. They're a constant source of complaints from neighbors, and they keep police busy responding to the problems they create inside and outside their premises.

Cities such as Washington mitigate the problem through laws that restrict the hours when liquor stores can do business during the week and that ban Sunday sales entirely. Moreover, many states, including Virginia and North Carolina, allow hard liquor to be sold only in state-owned stores that adhere strictly to prescribed hours of operation and underage drinking laws.

Would that Baltimore could benefit from similar regulation. But the city is powerless to restrict liquor sales; that's a state prerogative. So the nuisance law became the city's remedy of last resort.

Linden Liquors is the first store closure sought by police in 15 years because the law has had so many loopholes it has been nearly impossible to enforce. Even after the City Council revised it this year, shutting down violators takes forever. That's bad for communities blighted by their presence and for the authorities who must deal with the chaos they create. In short, it's frustrating for everyone involved, and there has to be a better way of dealing with this problem.

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