Target the drug houses, too


In some neighborhoods, where is as important as who to junkies looking for that next fix or hit. Would-be crack customers who might not know whom to see frequently do know where to go. Police can't arrest these buildings that have become magnets for drug abusers and their suppliers. But there is a legal tool that, if used more frequently in cooperation with community groups, could have as much impact on some neighborhoods as the police department's current drug sweeps.

That tool is Maryland's Nuisance Abatement law, which was enacted in 1991 but not used much in Baltimore until now. The law allows lawsuits to be filed against the owners of known drug houses. It gives citizens the ability to take action against property owners who do nothing to stop their houses from being used to sell or consume drugs. It also gives judges broader powers in such cases. They can order evictions. They can even order that drug houses be demolished, which they have done in the past in Anne Arundel County.

The law is different from drug forfeiture laws in Maryland. Prosecutors don't have to prove the real estate was acquired LTC through drug profits, nor do they have to win a conviction against the property owner before requiring him to take action to evict drug-dealing tenants.

By the summer of 1993, the city had only brought two test cases involving the nuisance law. Both concerned houses in the 1400 block of Division Street in West Baltimore. But the pace has quickened since then. The Community Anti-Drug Assistance Project began two years ago and it has worked with the city state's attorney's office to file 500 nuisance abatement cases. Only 20 went to court. Most property owners, when shown they will be held responsible for what happens in their houses, take steps to correct the situation.

Hearings have been scheduled for later this month in cases where the owners of two known drug houses in East Baltimore have not otherwise been motivated to do something about their tenants. Notices were posted on the doors of the residences notifying owners that they must evict the tenants and tell the court how they plan to keep the properties from being used as crack houses in the future. If they don't comply, the property owners could be ordered to sell the two houses.

That may seem drastic. But drastic measures are in order in some neighborhoods. It's wrong for property owners who don't have to live in these communities to concern themselves only with whether the rent is being paid and not with who is paying it. Many of them can do a better job of screening tenant applicants and of inspecting their properties to see what is happening to them. If a little coercion from the courts is needed to make such property owners do better, then so be it.

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