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Hagerstown Police plan to increase enforcement against landlords who rent to drug dealers

June 02, 2013|By DAN DEARTH | dan.dearth@herald-mail.com

The Hagerstown Police Department says it plans to increase the use of a state ordinance that lets authorities go after landlords who frequently rent their properties to drug users and dealers.

Police Chief Mark Holtzman said illegal drug activity in rental properties has been an ongoing problem in the city for many years.

“There’s nothing more damaging to a neighborhood than to have a house in the neighborhood that has illegal drug activity — namely drug sales,” Holtzman said.

The ordinance, known as Maryland Real Property Section 14-120, is nothing new.

Washington County Assistant State’s Attorney Brett Wilson said the city started to regularly enforce the ordinance shortly after former Hagerstown Police Chief Arthur Smith came to town around the turn of the millennium.

He said Smith was familiar with the ordinance from his experience working at the Baltimore Police Department.

At the time, drug dealers were openly selling narcotics on the streets of Hagerstown, Wilson said. As a result, the city installed cameras and ramped up patrols, which drove the criminal activity indoors.

Wilson said authorities started to serve dozens of warrants to address the drug houses and the people who owned them.

Within a one-year period, the police department served about 50 drug-related search warrants “to make it uncomfortable for the dealers,” he said. “With the nuisance abatement (ordinance), you take it one step further and you make it uncomfortable for the land owners who don’t oversee their building ... and, with a wink and a nod, allow them to become drug-infested ratholes.”

Wilson said the difficulty is trying to prove that the landlord had knowledge that drug activity was taking place and failed to act.

But if it is proven, he said, the courts can enforce injunctive powers that make landlords take remedial actions, such as installing security cameras, doors and lighting.

In extreme cases, Wilson said, the court has ordered landlords to hire management companies to oversee properties with a history of drug activity.

“There are properties in Washington County that have been seized and sold because they are used for the manufacture and distribution of drugs,” he said.

Wilson said he believed certain federal programs that offer rental assistance to violent offenders help the problem persist.

“They’re federal programs that are paying rent that the landlords sign on to make sure they get a rent check ... They go under the radar and create some of these problems just by the nature of the program,” he said.

Holtzman said most of the landlords who received notices in the past have been responsive. Typically, he said, the problem is solved by evicting the tenant.

“We have had a good response from almost every landlord that we’ve sent a letter to (notifying them) that illegal drug activity is taking place,” he said.

Holtzman said the problem is less prevalent in actively managed properties, but all landlords can reduce their risk of legal troubles if they are proactive.

He said landlords should perform background checks on prospective tenants, in part by checking the Maryland judiciary website at http://casesearch.courts.state.md.us. The website, among other things, lists a person’s legal history in the Maryland courts system.

In addition, he suggested that landlords visit their properties and talk to neighbors to check on whether anything seems strange.

“You can’t be an absentee landlord and expect the property to manage itself,” Holtzman said.

Councilwoman Penny M. Nigh has been a longtime proponent of holding landlords accountable for renting to drug users and dealers.

She said Friday that she hadn’t heard the police department was going to step up enforcement of the ordinance, but said she supported the proposal.

“That’s what needs to be done,” she said. “I have no problem with the police going after landlords.”

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