Legislation that aims to crack down on so-called nuisance businesses in Anne Arundel County could be a powerful crime-fighting tool or a violation of civil liberties, according to opposing voices in the debate over the bill.
Monday night, council members heard concerns about the bill’s impact on businesses deemed a “nuisance” and ordered to follow abatement orders determined by the county’s police chief.
Council Bill 87-16 would authorize Anne Arundel’s police chief to issue a public nuisance notice to businesses after ten arrests on their property for public nuisance crimes, which the bill defines as prostitution, lewdness, human trafficking, drug possession, use and dealing, gambling, storing stolen property and unregistered firearms, crimes of violence, and gang activity, among other charges.
Once served with a notice, businesses would be entitled to a hearing to contest the chief’s claims.
If the chief finds a public nuisance exists, he would issue an order laying out terms for abatement of the problem. Those terms could include shuttering the business until its problems are addressed — for up to a year.
Business owners could appeal the decision to the county’s Board of Appeals, and then to the county’s Circuit Court and Maryland’s higher courts.
From The Capital Gazette,
Council members passed two changes to the measure. One would require the police chief to present proof of 10 arrests for nuisance crimes at a business within the span of a year before holding a nuisance hearing or issuing an abatement order. And if a business owner is issued such an order, they would be guaranteed an appeal hearing within eight business days of registering a formal protest against the decision.
Despite the tweaks, Council Bill 87-16 still faces opposition from County Executive Steve Schuh and several members of the council.
Schuh’s lobbyist Bernie Marczyk said Monday the administration has concerns about its potential “unintended consequences.”
“There’s very little due process for a violator,” Marczyk said. He said Schuh worries passing the measure could put pressure on the police chief and could create a situation where a county executive might go after businesses he or she wants to declare a nuisance.
“We have tried to arrive at ways that could make this bill better, but we continue to struggle with that,” he said.
Councilman Andrew Pruski, D-Gambrills, sponsored the measure in response to complaints of recurring crime at hotels on Laurel’s Route 198 corridor. Police call logs show officers have responded to reports of prostitution, assault, weapons offenses and other crimes at those businesses over the past three years.
Councilman Michael Peroutka, R-Millersville suggested changing the definition of public nuisance so that it would require five convictions of a so-called problem business’ owner or operator within five years. Each conviction would have had to arise from a separate incident.
Peroutka said he empathized with residents frustrated by crime, but couldn’t justify voting for legislation that might infringe on a property owner’s rights.
“You can’t deprive people of their livelihood or their liberty without proving they’re complicit in the wrongdoing,” he said.
Annapolis resident David Whitney agreed. He’s a member of the Institute on the Constitution (which Peroutka founded) and objected to the bill’s inclusion of unregistered firearms charges as a “nuisance” offense.
Pruski said a look at police call logs and visit to the county’s Ordnance Road detention center would make clear the hotels are at the epicenter of “nuisance” issues.
The council voted down Peroutka’s amendment, 5 to 2.
Councilman Derek Fink, R-Pasadena, was the only other vote in favor of the change.
He wondered whether the nuisance bill might have an adverse effect on crime-fighting.
“I just start to worry if you’re going to end up getting a negative effect because the property owner’s no longer going to be willing to cooperate with the police.”
Council members will again take up the issue Jan. 3.
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