Pr. George’s bill cracks down on dance halls

July 19, 2011

The Prince George’s County Council passed an emergency bill Tuesday that would impose stringent requirements on dance halls and give police and other officials broad authority to shutter them should they be deemed a threat to public safety.

The bill, which must be signed by County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) to become law, is intended to help stem nightclub and dance hall violence that police and other officials say has been especially problematic this year. Six of the county’s 64 homicides in 2011 have had a link to nightclubs or dance halls, compared with three in 2010 and four in 2009, police officials said.

The most recent slaying with a tie to a nightclub occurred in April, when James A. Jackson Jr. was shot outside Martini’s Restaurant and Lounge in Fort Washington.

“We’re certainly not anti-business whatsoever, but we’ve had too much violence associated with these establishments,” said Prince George’s Police Chief Mark Magaw, who spoke to the council in support of the bill. “It has to stop.”

The bill would require dance hall operators to submit security plans to county officials detailing, among other things, their surveillance camera systems, lighting and security guard staffing levels. It also would raise the license fee on dance halls from $200 to $1,000, ban dancing after 2 a.m. and mandate background checks of those seeking to obtain or renew dance hall licenses.

If the measure becomes law, dance halls operating in violation of the provisions could have their licenses suspended or revoked. Police, fire and environmental resources officials would be able to shutter dance halls should they violate their use-and-occupancy permit or pose a “threat to the peace and health, safety and welfare of the public.”

Dance hall operators would be able to request a hearing with officials within 72 hours of a violation.

At a hearing Tuesday, police commanders, prosecutors and community activists testified in favor of the emergency bill, sponsored by council member Karen R. Toles (D-Suitland), saying dance halls often attract crime, which requires police resources to be drawn away from other assignments.

One community activist and a club owner testified against the bill, saying council members should have consulted business owners before pushing legislation through.

“I just strongly encourage the council to take a step back,” said Doc Hayes, owner of Martini’s. “The bill needs tweaking, and including the people from the industry, to get this right.”

Hayes said after the hearing that he was especially concerned with increased license fees and with a provision that would stop dancing at 2 a.m. He said earlier closing times do not help quell violence.

The seven council members at Tuesday’s meeting voted to pass the bill. It is unclear how aggressively county officials would be able to enforce a law. Brad Frome, Baker’s deputy chief of staff, said Baker is expected to sign the bill.

In 2007, then-Prince George’s Executive Jack B. Johnson tried to close nine nightclubs in response to a wave of violence. He did so under a county law, passed the year before, that allowed officials to shutter businesses deemed “an imminent danger and threat to the health, safety and welfare of the public.”

A Circuit Court judge stopped five of the closures, saying officials had failed to give specific grounds for them. The clubs and the county eventually reached a deal, and the establishments were allowed to stay open.

Prince George’s State’s Attorney Angela D. Alsobrooks said that county officials believe the word “imminent” was problematic in the 2006 law and that the new emergency measure would give police and others broader authority to act against dance halls. Magaw, the police chief, said the more recent bill is a “refinement” of the old law and one that officials hope would stand up to a test in court.

Staff writer Miranda S. Spivack contributed to this report.

Matt Zapotosky covers the federal district courthouse in Alexandria, where he tries to break news from a windowless office in which he is not allowed to bring his cell phone.
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