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Maryland Trespassing Law Criticized

December 29, 1998

BALTIMORE (AP) _ Some public housing residents are trying to reverse a police policy aimed at reducing crime, saying aggressive enforcement of trespass laws has gone too far and interferes with their rights.

Five public housing residents in Frederick, about 50 miles west of Baltimore, have filed a federal lawsuit over the issue.

Jamie Williams, 22, one of the plaintiffs, testified at a hearing Monday that the law prevented her boyfriend from visiting their son and broke up a relationship headed for marriage.

``We don’t hardly see each other at all. It hurts me because I wanted to keep our family together,″ she said. ``We were going to get married. Now it is nothing.″

Ms. Williams said her boyfriend was visiting in April 1997 when they went out to buy food. An officer approached and told her boyfriend to sign a trespassing citation or be arrested.

Since then, she said, he hasn’t been around much. She also said she didn’t know the man had pleaded guilty to drug charges last year.

Housing officials and city police credit the policy with reducing drug activity and making Frederick’s six public housing complexes safer. But the plaintiffs’ lawyers say the policy is too broad and infringes on the constitutional right of free assembly.

Frederick County’s population has surged by more than 25 percent this decade, driven by low property values and easy access to Washington and Baltimore. The growth is expected to continue, pushing the county’s population to 282,000 by 2020.

Frederick, its largest city, now has more than 46,000 people.

By the late 1980s, the city’s public housing had become open drug markets and tenants wanted something done, said Pamela Bresnahan, a lawyer for the Frederick police. ``The tenants in public housing have been very supportive of the trespassing law,″ she said.

At the urging of the city housing authority, Frederick police stepped up enforcement of existing trespassing law at the housing complexes in 1994. Housing officials left it up to police to decide who was violating the law.

Violators initially are given a warning notice and their names are placed on a log that now has nearly 1,000 entries. If found on public housing property again, violators can be arrested.

Defense lawyer Shirley Lake said the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires that housing complexes be safe places to live. Tenants sign leases in which they accept responsibility for their guests or risk eviction, she said.

But the plaintiffs argue police have targeted invited guests along with the unwanted trespassers.

The policy is a ``dragnet response″ that traps too many people with legitimate reasons to be on public housing property, a plaintiffs’ lawyer said.

``Fathers are prevented from visiting their children. Uncles can’t help nieces carry mattresses to their apartments. Cousins who grew up in adjacent housing complexes can’t visit,″ said Deborah Thompson, a lawyer for the Public Justice Center, which filed the complaint.

The court has not yet ruled on the complaint.

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