Those accused of prostitution, human trafficking and gang activity may no longer be the only ones in trouble for the illegal activity; a Prince George’s County proposal also seeks to target the owners of the properties where the crimes take place.
A bill introduced May 14 would change county laws to allow homes that have repeated problems regarding prostitution, human trafficking and gang activity to face fines or potentially lose their home or business, said County Councilman Mel Franklin (D-Dist. 9) of Upper Marlboro, one of the bill co-sponsors.
Under existing law, property owners largely can’t be held liable for prostitution, human trafficking or gang activity happening on their land unless it’s clear they had knowledge of what was occurring, Franklin said.
The new legislation allows existing nuisance rules, which currently only apply to drug offenses, to also be applied to places where prostitution, human trafficking or gang activity occurs. The draft bill would give the county attorney the power to bring cases to the county’s Nuisance Abatement Board against sites that have repeated issues with the new offenses and lack willingness to do anything to prevent the crimes, Franklin said. Evidence can come from anything from affidavits from neighbors, police reports or other evidence, he said.
The goal of the law though isn’t to punish property owners, but to encourage them to work with law enforcement to deal with the issues either by reporting issues or making security upgrades to deter such crimes, Franklin said.
“What we want to do is reduce criminal activity,” he said. “We want them to cooperate and help keep everyone in our community safe.”
The new rule gives neighborhoods another way to address crimes, since arresting criminals may take those committing the acts away, but the problem can continue if homeowners allow other criminals to move in, Franklin said.
The new bill, CB-26-2013, would simply expand existing nuisance rules to apply to other illegal activities, Franklin said.
“We think it’s good legislation,” said Lt. Bill Alexander, a county police spokesman. “We look at it as another tool we could use to deter this type of crime.”
The legislation could help address prostitution problems, which have changed over the years, said Maj. Robert Brewer, who commands the District 1 police station in Hyattsville.
While prostitutes used to walk the streets looking for business, websites and new technology has allowed prostitutes and customers to meet at locations such as houses and hotels, he said. A prostitution sting by county police of hotels in the College Park area in August netted more than 80 arrests, Brewer said.
County business owners wouldn’t oppose cracking down on such activity as long as it’s done carefully, said David Harrington, president of the Prince George’s Chamber of Commerce, who added the chamber has yet to take an official position on the legislation.
“You have to be very careful how you word the legislation. You don’t want this broad brush where every hotel is dealt with the same,” Harrington said.
Following introduction, the bill was sent along to the county’s Public Safety and Financial Management Committee for evaluation. Franklin said he was optimistic of the bill’s success.
“I think there is a great chance for it passing in the next month or two,” he said.