Council passes new restrictions on adult bookstores


Harford's adult bookstores will have to abide by new regulations that govern applying for licenses to operate and policing their shops and parking lots for sexual activity.

The new law, passed Tuesday by the County Council, also allows the county to deny licenses to applicants if they or someone they live with have been convicted of certain sexual offenses.

The law, passed on a 6-1 council vote, would apply to shops whose principal business consists of selling or renting sexually explicit films or printed material.

The four existing adult bookstores in the county would be exempt from new zoning restrictions in the law that prohibit such shops within 1,000 feet of a church or house of worship, school, day care center, public park or residential neighborhood.

Adult bookstores also would be barred from either locating or expanding within 1,000 feet of another such store.

The bill, sponsored by Councilman Philip J. Barker, D-District F, also would require all adult bookstore owners and employees to regularly monitor their shops and parking lots to discourage illegal sexual activity.

In addition, the law bans curtains and doors on booths in which customers view sexually graphic films. The law also requires such booths, typically called peep show booths, to be separated by solid walls.

Councilwoman Susan B. Heselton, R-District A, said she cast the sole dissenting vote over a provision in the bill that would deny a license to applicants if they, their spouse or a roommate have been convicted of certain crimes.

The provision would allow the county todeny licenses to applicants, if they, their spouse or a roommate have been convicted of such sexual offenses as indecent exposure, sodomy, prostitution, rape, selling obscene material, or child pornography.

"Every lawyer I've talked to tells me that provision is unconstitutional," said Heselton.

The council's own lawyer, H. Edward Andrews III of Bel Air, made the same argument at the council's previous meeting, saying there was "no rational basis for that provision. I don't know whether a bookstore owner can be held responsible for knowing the background of his spouse or acquaintances." Private citizens cannot request criminal background checks, he noted.

Barker, in drafting the bill, based the provision on language in a Dallas law.

Part of the Dallas law has withstood a U.S. Supreme Court challenge. But the Supreme Court specifically said it would not address the constitutionality of the section Heselton questioned, said James D. Vannoy, assistant council attorney. The Supreme Court upheld the Dallas ordinance generally, but did say it was constitutionally flawed because it failed to allow for prompt judicial review of a license denial, Vannoy said.

The bill passed Tuesday must be signed by the county executive and would not become law until 60 days after that signing.

County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann said Wednesday she wants the county attorney, Emory Plitt, to advise her on whether she should sign or veto it.

The bill was not opposed by the owners of county's four existing adult bookstores.

Jack T. Feldman, a lawyer representing the owners, served on the 13-member panel that drafted the legislation. Feldman's only objection after the bill was introduced was to a proposed $500 licensing fee; he said the fee was much higher than other fees the county charges. The council amended the bill to lower the fee to $200.

County State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly testified at a public hearing in April in support of the bill, saying it was needed to end sexual activity at the shops and to curb the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. "We sent undercover officers into two of the four existing adult bookstores, and on every occasion they observed sexual activity," Cassilly said in his testimony.

Harford is among several jurisdictions that passed laws regulating adult bookstores and, like the others, did not attempt to censor what the shops could carry.

The city of Salisbury enacted legislation in November that requires "adult-oriented entertainment" establishments to meet numerous guidelines for their interiors and bans sexual activity inside them.

The Anne Arundel County Council also passed a law in November barring adult bookstores from within 1,000 feet of homes, schools, churches, libraries, parks, day care centers and other adult entertainment establishments. It restricts the businesses to areas zoned for highway commercial and heavy industrial use.

The Anne Arundel law requires the interiors of peep show booths to be open, lighted and visible from the manager's station to prevent sexual activity in the booths. An existing adult bookstore near a residential neighborhood will be required to move under the Anne Arundel County law.

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