Police use speedy evictions in stepped-up drug battle

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The men puffing the marijuana "blunts" on the corner near his west Columbia home annoy 18-year-old Tony Bright. "They're trying to destroy us," he says. "I wish it was different."

Howard County police and landlords want to see a change, too. So, for the past 18 months, Howard police have devoted two detectives to using a speedy nuisance abatement program -- evictions -- to deal with people they say are using or selling drugs from rental housing.

The evictions -- which can take place within two weeks of drug arrests -- are part of a multipronged law enforcement thrust, including drug raids and residential trash searches.

Howard police say they are trying to stop drug activity before it grows in the county as it has in urban areas. They are particularly concerned about burgeoning drug scenes at some of Howard's lower-income rental developments, which sometimes draw patrons and dealers from Baltimore and Washington.

In the past, landlords could evict a tenant only after months of legal wrangling. But under a 1992 state law, police departments were given the ammunition they needed to root out troublemakers quickly.

Now, a resident charged with possessing drugs in his home or selling them there can face a civil hearing and be evicted within three days.

"It comes down to quality of life in the community," said Lt. Jeff Spaulding, head of the vice and narcotics section. "If we can get drugs out, we'll remove a lot of fear."

Legal rights advocates criticize the quick eviction process, which they say jeopardizes potentially innocent people's housing arrangements before a criminal trial and a conviction.

"To kick them out is no trifling thing," said Stuart Comstock-Gay, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union in Baltimore. "I'm concerned when we try to speed up that too much, and people aren't given a chance to defend themselves."

Countywide, the Police Department handled 25 nuisance abatement cases in 1994; two are still active. At least 20 of the cases -- all resulting from drug offenses -- ended in evictions, police say. This year, 12 of 17 such cases are active. Almost all of the cases are in subsidized housing.

In most cases, residents decide to move after officers post signs about the eviction process.

The case against Michael Vernon Lardner Jr., 23, is typical. Police searched his home Jan. 24 in the 3700 block of St. Paul St. in Ellicott City, and reported that they found him and three friends smoking marijuana in a living room. Two-foot marijuana plants growing in closets were confiscated, police said.

Mr. Lardner, facing drug charges, was forced out a month later after police spoke with his landlord. Family members say Mr. Lardner now lives on Bond Street in Baltimore.

He was one of four people evicted this year through the nuisance abatement process. Twelve similar cases this year have not been closed, police said.

Although the drug problem in Howard County does not compare with those in nearby metropolitan areas, the high-income county makes for a lucrative market for dealers.

And that creates other troubles -- loitering, vandalism, strong-arm robberies, burglaries and thefts from cars -- in neighborhoods and creates a difficult environment for young people such as Mr. Bright.

"It makes no sense," said Mr. Bright, who lives in the Rideout Heath development in Columbia's Wilde Lake village. "It can hurt little children."

Management companies that run the rental properties are usually willing to help police so that drug dealers don't ruin the image of the developments.

"It really helps us flush out people who are known distributors," said Elsie Walters, executive director of the Columbia Housing Corp. (CHC), which owns 360 housing units in Howard County. About 200 of them are subsidized homes in Columbia, where Howard police have focused many of their drug raids.

"I hope that law stays in effect," said Barbara Reed, chairwoman of the Roslyn Rise Community Association in Wilde Lake and president of a board made up of residents from the five CHC-owned developments. "It's very helpful."

Ms. Reed said she has seen many evictions and has watched the community heal after them.

"It was really intimidating. There was a drug hangout, and people were afraid. We didn't have to live like that, like victims in our own homes," said Ms. Reed, who has lived in her townhouse for 24 years. "But now most of it's gone, and it's more peaceful."

Many believe the program is a success, but it has been criticized for harming other residents in units where drug activity is observed. Some cases involve women whose boyfriends are selling drugs or addicts who live with their parents.

Eleanor Johnson, 56, said she was wrongly blamed for drug activity at her Wilde Lake home.

Narcotics detectives and a tactical team stormed through her Rideout Heath townhouse's front door Feb. 1 while she and about six other family members and friends sat in a living room eating fish and watching television.

Police reported finding only cocaine residue and $1,000 in cash at her home but arrested two people there on drug charges. Before the raid, Lieutenant Spaulding said, police informants purchased drugs from the home twice.

"Now look at me. Do I look like I deal drugs? Because the police say I'm a runner," said the woman, who has lived in the house for 24 years. She used to arm herself with a bat and chase out drug pushers, she said.

A judge ruled in March that Ms. Johnson had no knowledge of drugs at her home, but the management of CHC is still trying to evict her.

"They're still trying to put me out," she said. "But I'll fight."

Police say that although criminal drug trials come months after DTC the eviction process, they are independent of the judge's ruling in the eviction cases.

But, because it takes less proof to win the civil eviction than a criminal drug case, someone could be evicted from a home and found innocent of the drug charges that spurred the eviction process, Mr. Comstock-Gay said.

He said such efforts by police and management companies to fight drugs have good intentions but that they need to guarantee fairness for the accused.

"The question with this is: Are they really given a chance to defend themselves?" Mr. Comstock-Gay said. "They may say, 'The drugs aren't mine.' Maybe someone's grandson put them there.

"It's unfair to put them out on the street if they didn't know, if they're not responsible."

Mary Murphy, a senior state's attorney for the Howard Circuit Court, said drug raids almost always end in convictions because of police evidence.

In a typical search and seizure, a judge has previously signed a warrant indicating substantial evidence of drugs in the homes. And Lieutenant Spaulding said there usually is little debate when an undercover officer makes a face-to-face buy from a resident or when detectives confiscate drugs after a raid.

Property managers often consider any involvement with drugs a violation of rental rules. But they used to have trouble evicting tenants. After drug arrests, they would have to go through the months-long eviction process. Meanwhile, some of those arrested would return home on bail and begin selling drugs in their homes again.

A 1994 federal grant enabled Howard police to pay Detective Victoria Plank and Detective Lisa Montgomery to work on drug evictions full time.

Now, when a dealer is arrested, police provide a county lawyer with information on how the person has been a nuisance. Landlords usually cooperate and share information.

The county then files a petition in District Court and gets a hearing date. The resident is served with a notice of eviction procedures.

A judge decides whether there is reason to believe the person knew of drug activity in a home. If so, landlords can evict within 72 hours.

L "The timing of everything is sped up," Detective Plank said.

Lieutenant Spaulding said the department is working to develop a screening system to track those evicted so that their drug histories are known when they apply for subsidized properties.

"If you sell drugs, you lose your right to the privileges of subsidized housing," Lieutenant Spaulding said.

Howard County is typically viewed as quiet and free of a significant drug problem, but Lieutenant Spaulding said some dealers live in the county and do business elsewhere.

In 1994, drug violations in Howard County increased 39 percent. Police made 827 arrests for such violations. Police say marijuana accounted for two-thirds of all drug arrests in 1994.

Since early March, Howard detectives have charged 34 people from Howard, Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Montgomery counties, blaming them for putting 50 pounds of drugs a month into the Baltimore-Washington area.

The distribution chain was traced from Mexico to California to Howard County.

Howard police more frequently encounter the low-level dealers.

Police are credited with some successes. There used to be at least 23 reports a month about suspected drug activity in the Fall River Terrace community in Harper's Choice. Evictions helped reduce the reports to about six a month now, said Lisa Yerrid, president of the Fall River Terrace community association.

"You have to be prepared for the influx of drugs at any time," she said. "We try to never put down our guard."

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