The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland has voiced opposition to the much-debated "nuisance" bill now before the Anne Arundel County Council, saying in written testimony early this month that the proposal would put victims of domestic violence at risk and undermine law enforcement.
Nuisance laws, or laws that may lead to a property being shut down based on police response or criminal activity, deter victims from reporting crime and discourage them from calling the police for help, the ACLU said in its testimony.
In cases of domestic violence particularly, victims who check into a hotel when fleeing an abusive home may be hesitant to call the police if an abuser shows up out of concern that an arrest at the hotel would put the property at risk of being shuttered under a public nuisance law.
Under the county proposal, which the council has debated for months, the county police chief would have the authority to issue public nuisance notices to certain hotels that rack up 10 or more "nuisance" arrests on their properties. Once a hotel has received a notice, the door would be open for the county to order the businesses to temporarily close until the issues are addressed. A hearing would take place first.
Councilman Andrew Pruski, D-Gambrills, introduced the bill last year as an attempt to crack down on crime-ridden hotels along the Route 198 corridor. The hotels have long been a source of concern among residents of the area who say the properties are magnets for prostitution, drug dealing and other problems.
Police logs confirm officers have responded to the Route 198 hotels for multiple reports of such crimes over the past three years.
On Monday, Pruski said the ACLU had been unaware of the numerous amendments made to the legislation since its introduction that narrow the scope of the measure and add a series of a safeguards. The testimony was the group's "boilerplate response to any nuisance law," he said.
"This (legislation) hasn't been created in a vacuum," he said. "There's been a lot of work done on this with a lot of stakeholders and a lot of discussion. … We're trying to move forward."
Representatives from the ACLU could not be reached for comment Monday.
The council has passed several amendments to the legislation since it was introduced, including one that limits the measure to apply only to hotels with 200 units or fewer. It initially applied to commercial properties in general.
Pruski said the county police department has a domestic violence unit that would work to make sure victims have safe housing.
A main motivation behind the legislation is to stop the human trafficking taking place at the hotels, Pruski said.
"We know that this is occurring," he said. "This (legislation) is a good way to address that because the only way you're going to change the behaviors of people is to have some accountability."
He also said much of the police response to the hotels is the result of officers in the area noticing issues themselves and not necessarily responding to a complaint.
County Executive Steve Schuh's administration and some council members have voiced qualms about the legislation, saying it raises concerns about constitutionality and could create unintended problems for other county businesses.
On Monday, Schuh spokesman Owen McEvoy said the ACLU's concerns reinforce some of the administration's.
"I think that letter continues to raise very serious concerns about this legislation from the civil liberties standpoint," McEvoy said. "(The administration has) said all along we have very serious concerns about this bill."
Schuh recently announced the police department would be focusing more resources on the hotels in an effort to target crime there.
On top of the domestic violence and law enforcement concerns, the ACLU in its testimony took issue with the bill that basing "nuisances" on arrests rather than convictions. The group also said the bill would "likely bear a disparate impact on communities of color."
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The county council is expected to take up the measure during its meeting Tuesday.