Related topics

Police Chief Wants Tougher Tramp Law

January 11, 1985

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) _ A police chief says his war on vagrants would be a lot easier if he didn’t have to prove they were sane, but a homeless group says punishing even one person for being destitute is ″outrageous.″

Maj. Richard Ashton, the police chief of Frederick, Md., said Thursday he wants an amendment to the state’s ″tramp law,″ which provides jail sentences of 30 days to 1 year for anyone found in a public area who has no job or means of support. He wants the law amended so that prosecutors don’t have the burden of proving the ″tramps″ are sane.

″It’s just too expensive to send a person for an examination for insanity to prosecute him for a minor misdemeanor,″ Ashton said in a telephone interview.

Officials in Frederick, an up-and-coming old town about 45 miles northwest of Washington, have been trying to clear winos and other homeless people out of the historic downtown area, where renovation and speciality stores are the order of the day.

The police chief said he foresaw no more than a half-dozen people being charged a year under the statute, if it’s amended.″It’s kind of really a last-resort thing,″ he said.

″It’s outrageous,″ said Joanne Selinske, president of the Greater Baltimore Shelter Network, who said in an interview that she intended to fight the bill. ″You cannot penalize people for not having a means to support themselves.″

She added, ″It’s the old case of blaming the victim.″

The Frederick County state’s attorney, Tommy Dorsey, said he would join Ashton in supporting the bill at a legislative hearing next Tuesday.

The law now is inconsistent with other statutes that do not burden the state with proving a defendant’s sanity, so a change would be helpful, Dorsey said, adding, ″I don’t see a sweep in downtown Frederick. I don’t see any dragnet occurring or anything like that.″

In August, Ashton said Frederick police took ″269 enforcement actions,″ charging people in the downtown area with such offenses as drinking in public, loitering and disorderly intoxication.

However, he said, the campaign has only been partly successful.

″I don’t think we’re getting all the support we’d like from the criminal justice system,″ he said.

In cases where someone has passed out in the snow, and a rescue mission won’t take him, a change in the law could serve a humanitarian purpose by enabling police to get the person in doors, if only in jail, Ashton said.

Ms. Selinske said she could see no humanitarian side to the proposal.

″There are jurisdictions where those laws don’t exist and police have a way to get them off the streets and help them,″ she said.

Update hourly