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“Padlock law” vote delayed by Baltimore County Council following objections.

Baltimore County Police Chief Melissa Hyatt. Credit: John Lee

A proposal that would make it easier for Baltimore County police to shut down businesses and residences with ties to crimes of violence, prostitution, drugs and illegal gambling has run into opposition.

Opponents say it’s too broad and question whether it’s constitutional. Concerns about the legislation are delaying a vote on it.

Currently authorities need two criminal convictions to shut down a place.

The bill would allow the county to do it if police officers file just two reports on a home or business within two years.

Baltimore County Police Chief Melissa Hyatt told the county council Tuesday night there have been cases where delays getting convictions led to serious crimes being committed. She said the current statute is not working.

“The threshold of two or more criminal convictions really allows the small number of irresponsible businesses within our community, it literally gives them months or even years of continued criminal activity before the current law can be applied,” Hyatt said.

But attorney David Mister told the council that the legislation is vague and denies due process. He also said there needs to be a threshold of evidence.

Mister said, “You could have a competitor, or a neighbor, somebody who just doesn’t like the business or likes the people, maybe doesn’t like their race or their religion. They could be repeatedly calling the police and the police will dutifully make a police report.”

Jack Milani, the legislative chair of the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association, said he is in favor of the intent of the legislation. But he said it could have a chilling effect of keeping the owner of an establishment from calling the police if trouble was brewing because that would generate a report.

“I just want to make sure we don’t do anything that’s going to put the fear of calling the police into a licensee’s head,” Milani said.

Aaron Greenfield, director of government affairs for the Maryland Multi-Housing Association, said the bill as written would allow the police chief to shutter an entire multi-family community.

“Even if the police report is unfounded, charges were reduced, the case was nolle prossed, or even if the defendant was acquitted, the premises could still be deemed a nuisance,” Greenfield said.

Republican Councilman David Marks said he believes criminal activity at a business near the intersection of East Joppa Road and Loch Raven Boulevard caused a nearby Starbucks to shut down.

“For me, the importance is to bring bad property owners into an arrangement with the police to try to reduce these incidents,” Marks said.

A vote on the bill is being delayed two weeks so amendments can be added to address the objections.

The bill would allow the county administrative officer to overrule the police chief and let a place remain open, taking into account factors like the severity of the violations and past history.

A business targeted for closing also could appeal.

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2