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Post-snowstorm curfew shows precedent for mayor's authority

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and police Commissioner Anthony J. Batts address the media on April 28, the day the citywide curfew took effect.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and police Commissioner Anthony J. Batts address the media on April 28, the day the citywide curfew took effect. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

When Mayor William Donald Schaefer imposed an emergency curfew to stem looting following a massive snowstorm in 1979, Governor Harry Hughes openly questioned whether it was legal.

"I suppose," Hughes said at the time, according to a Sun article, "there is the possibility that some of the arrests last night may have been illegal."

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But a week later, District Court Judge Edward F. Borgerding ruled in Schaefer's favor, saying it was rooted in his authority as "conservator of the peace" - the same grounds cited by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's legal counsel last month when she set a curfew amid rioting.

The Maryland Public Defender's office on Monday challenged Rawlings-Blake's authority to impose last month's curfew, saying only the governor had such authority without approval of the city council.

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City Solicitor George Nilson has maintained that the mayor's authority came from her powers as a "conservator of the peace," which has no clear definition in city or state law. According to a Sun article, "conservators of the peace" have a basis in common law that dates to the year 1255.

Though not cited by Nilson this month, Borgerding in 1979 agreed. The penalty for violating the curfew was within the judge's discretion, and Borgerding sentenced five people to sentences of time served - either six or seven days in jail.

A prior curfew imposed during the 1968 riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. was set by then-Gov. Spiro Agnew at the request of then-Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro.

Dozens of people were arrested for curfew violations this time around, and prosecutors said Monday that they decided to drop cases in which the sole charge was for breaking curfew. Those with additional charges, such as rioting and disorderly conduct, could still face prosecution.

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