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Judge rules city apartment building to be a nuisance

September 20, 2004|by PEPPER BALLARD

pepperb@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - A Hagerstown apartment building landlord on Thursday became the first property owner prosecuted under Washington County's Narcotics Nuisance Abatement Program, an initiative started four years ago to target landlords who allow drug activity in their buildings.

In a court opinion filed Thursday, Edward Snook's apartments extending between 19 and 23 Antietam St. were found by Washington County District Judge Ralph France II to be a nuisance, meaning a property that is considered to be used by drug dealers, users or manufacturers.

Snook's attorney, D. Bruce Poole, said his client is "very frustrated" by the decision. He said Snook has "tried to curb illegal activity" by reporting problem tenants, changing locks and having a tenant in the building who tells him about drug activity.

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"We respectfully disagree with the court's finding," Poole said, noting that the statute dictates that the owner must know of the illegal activity, which he said was not proven in court. Poole said he plans to file an appeal.

According to court records, in April, the Office of the State's Attorney wrote a letter to Snook telling him that illegal drug activity was happening in his building. After no response, the office requested in August that the property be declared a nuisance.

During a trial in late August, Hagerstown Police Department officers testified that there were many drug investigations into the property and a man charged with cocaine possession in one of the apartments testified that he was in the apartment building - in three or four different apartments - to use and buy drugs, according to court records.

Washington County Assistant State's Attorney Brett Wilson, the county's narcotics nuisance abatement attorney, said that since November, three investigations into the apartment building led to search warrants on apartments there. He said 18 to 20 people have been arrested from the apartment building since November.

He said Snook's case is the only such case that has been tried out of four that have been filed since 2000. The other cases were settled outside court, he said.

As a result of France's ruling, Snook has been required to contact an independent real estate management firm to manage for two years all rental and maintenance aspects of the property; install locked entrance and exit doors that are only accessible by tenants; install a security camera showing those doors; install flood lighting in the front and back of the building; and allow the Office of the State's Attorney unlimited access to records for two years, according to court records.

"It is possible that he will not have to do these things pending an appeal," Wilson said.

"It's important to understand that we only take this final step after other efforts at resolution failed," Washington County State's Attorney Charles Strong said. "We certainly want to work with landlords and not against them, but ultimately we will take it all the way in cases which merit it."

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