Bill targets businesses used as fronts for drug deals

The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore officials want to be able to quickly intervene when they uncover drug dealing at stores and restaurants. Testifying yesterday before a Senate committee, a housing department employee said "illicit businesses" continue while the city waits more than a month to file a civil action against the property owner and its tenant - under a state law that they want repealed or revised. A House committee will hear testimony on the bill today.

"What we're talking about are places that most often are just fronts for drug operations," said Robert Durocher, a city attorney with the housing department. He said police officers and residents near the problem businesses are frustrated by the delay because they perceive nothing is happening.

When police make a drug bust at a business, they can file criminal charges and also bring a civil "nuisance abatement" lawsuit. Durocher said that because criminal cases take so long to wind their way through court, it is more efficient to seek both remedies. But state law requires that prosecutors give commercial building owners and their tenants 45 days' notice before filing the civil case.

In response, a judge can issue anything from an admonishment to an eviction order.

Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat who filed the bill, told the Judicial Proceedings Committee that he is targeting businesses that are "fronts" for drug dealing.

He gave an example from his district: "This is a grocery store, but no one ever comes out with a bag of groceries," he said.

But Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat who owns a commercial building in McFadden's district, said it should be up to the owners to evict their misbehaving tenants. "I just don't want to punish the property owner," he said.

Durocher said owners - at least in Baltimore - are often too scared to evict tenants who might be drug dealers. Some senators said they would be more comfortable with the proposal if owners had 15 days' notice, and Durocher said the city is open to that compromise.

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