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Proposed Md. bill would make it easier for police to shutter ‘nuisance’ businesses

Police Chief Melissa Hyatt says the bill would help “prevent additional crimes”


Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. in February discusses crime-fighting efforts with county Police Chief Melissa Hyatt.

Barbara Haddock Taylor

By Christine Condon
Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE COUNTY, Md. — Closing businesses deemed “public nuisances” would be easier for police under a bill to be proposed Monday by Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.

Current law allows the chief of police to close a business for up to one year after two convictions associated with criminal activity on the property — such as prostitution, drug distribution or violence — in a two-year span.

But in the updated law convictions wouldn’t be required. Two police reports detailing criminal activity in a two-year period would be enough to trigger the law.

In that respect, the bill would bring the county’s “padlock law” into alignment with Baltimore City’s.

“This updated law will make it possible for our police department to prevent additional crimes by persuading operators of establishments to make reasonable changes, and by closing those premises if the owners refuse to cooperate,” Baltimore County Police Chief Melissa Hyatt said in a news release. “We need this authority to effectively address the small number of establishments that repeatedly endanger public safety.”

In both the city and the county, a public hearing is required before a business can be closed. To avoid closure, businesses can show proof they’ve abated the “nuisance.”

Under the county executive’s proposed bill, they could also post a bond (to be set no greater than the assessed value of the property). After the hearing before the county administrative officer — if a business owner disagrees with the finding — they can appeal to the county’s Office of Administrative Hearings.

“Enhancing public safety and security in Baltimore County is a top priority and we are constantly looking for new ways to do so,” Olszewski, who is running for reelection this year, said in a news release. “This proposal will provide law enforcement with a stronger tool to prevent properties from becoming havens for illegal activity.”

The county’s current padlock law “has never been a useful tool for the Police Department in decades,” police spokeswoman Joy Lepola-Stewart wrote.

“We have had multiple acts of violence, including shootings and homicides over the last couple of years that were directly linked to businesses that were either operating outside of their permit requirements or simply refusing to cooperate with basic safety improvements,” she said.

In the city, the padlock law is “very rarely” invoked to close businesses, said attorney Peter Prevas, who represents businesses before the city liquor board and in other matters.

Even so, Prevas said he takes issue with some of the law’s provisions. After the 2008 closure of Reservoir Hill’s Linden Bar and Liquors, Prevas argued before the Maryland Court of Special Appeals that the law violates due process.

“It could be two police reports — as opposed to a finding of having done something wrong,” Prevas said Monday. “There has to be a nexus between what happened and the operating — what the property owner did or didn’t do.”

There haven’t been any padlock hearings in Baltimore City during the pandemic, said police department spokeswoman Lindsey Eldridge. That’s partially due to staffing challenges at the department and to the loss of in-person hearings, she said.

But the department has continued to meet with businesses to discuss concerns around public safety. For one thing, businesses on The Block, Baltimore’s adult entertainment district, have been in talks with legislators and police officials about taking steps to reduce criminal activity that fall short of full closures, she said.

The vast majority of the time — perhaps 90% of cases — businesses have been able to avoid formal padlock hearings by agreeing to make certain changes, such as adding security cameras, Eldridge said.

At least one Baltimore County business leader, meanwhile, was in favor of the change.

“From my understanding, they’re only going after businesses that have egregious offenses — not scuffles in a bar,” said Nancy Hafford, executive director of the Towson Chamber of Commerce.

To her, the change would help send an important message: “That guns on the streets of Towson are not welcome.”

There have been several recent violent incidents in downtown Towson. In early February, a 23-year-old man was arrested after police said he fired a gun near the Towson traffic circle, striking a car. Later last month several young people were arrested after police said they assaulted officers and security guards in the Towson mall on a Saturday night, and then poured out into the street, obstructing traffic.

“If a place isn’t safe — or people perceive it’s not — then all our businesses will lose. Everybody loses,” she said.

Modifying the law has been considered in years past. In 2011, county police used the current law to shutter the Black Hole Rock Club in Dundalk after its manager was arrested and charged with selling drugs to customers.

After the incident, the county’s police chief at the time, James W. Johnson, called for the law to be broadened to match the city’s version so it could be used to address issues at other establishments. Kevin Kamenetz, then the county executive, said he’d consider it, but the change was never instituted.

Henry Callegary, president of the Towson Communities Alliance, said Monday that the group hasn’t taken an official position on the legislation and needs time to review the language.

But, he said, it does support giving the police department tools to keep Towson safe. He noted there have been concerns about some businesses in eastern Towson, particularly around the intersection of Joppa Road and Loch Raven Boulevard.

“There has been discussion about supporting [the proposal] because there are some businesses, typically those that are somewhat farther outside of downtown Towson, that have proven to be problematic,” Callegary said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Darcy Costello contributed to this article.

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