Virginia Attorney General Gerald L. Baliles has invoked a seldom-used provision of state corporation law in an effort to put a Fairfax County bookstore out of business.
Baliles asked the State Corporation Commission to dissolve the charter of Croatan Books Inc., a firm convicted 69 times in the past five years of possessing obscene films or magazines, on the grounds that it "has continued to exceed or abuse the authority conferred upon it by law." State officials said today they know of no precedent for the request, which Baliles made at the urging of Fairfax officials.
Croatan Books, located on Richmond Highway south of Alexandria and operating under the name Show Place Adult Books, has remained open despite its convictions and the more than $60,000 in fines Fairfax County Circuit Court judges have assessed against it. The store, one of two remaining "adult bookstores" in the county, has been the subject of repeated protests by neighborhood groups and county officials.
"These stores make such a big profit," said Fairfax prosecutor Robert F. Horan Jr., who asked Baliles to move against the store. "I'm sure they just chalk up the fines to overhead."
"The question is, if a guy keeps coming back, coming back, what can you do?" Baliles said.
A Northern Virginia lawyer who represents Croatan Books said he was not aware of Baliles' action, but he objected to the attorney general's efforts to shut the store. "Bookstores like this are protected by the First Amendment," said attorney Ed Williams. "They have a right to sell this kind of stuff."
The attorney general filed his request with the quasi-judicial corporation commission, which regulates corporations, banking and utilities in the state. Baliles said he did not know of any instances when the law was invoked on behalf of prosecutors, although corporations regularly are dissolved for failing to file annual statements and similar administrative shortcomings.
Croatan may request a hearing before the commission to contest the state's motion, a spokesman for Baliles said.
Fairfax law enforcement officials say they have been pressured by citizen groups in the Mount Vernon area over Croatan Books and the county's only other adult bookstore, Educational Books, also in the same area.
"It's more than just the books," said James Hurd, former assistant commonwealth's attorney who prosecuted several cases against Croatan. "It's a gathering place for undesirable people . . .It's a sleazy environment."
"We're not banning books," said Joyce Andrews, a community spokesman who has testified against Croatan in several trials. "We are not after the people using the stores or the publishers, we're after the people who disseminate these materials."
Baliles declined to say whether he believes the $1,000 fines allowed by law for each conviction are too low, but state Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. has introduced a bill in the General Assembly to raise the fine to $10,000 after the first conviction. Gartlan, a Democrat who represents southeast Fairfax, said he drafted the bill with Croatan Books in mind.
"It's been offensive to a pretty good-sized segment of the Mount Vernon community for a pretty long time," Gartlan said. "They were just totally frustrated by the failure of existing machinery to shut this place down."
In its most recent case against Croatan Books earlier this month, county prosecutors charged the store with six counts of selling obscene magazines. The charges were dropped after a jury could not agree on a verdict in the cases.
Although no representatives of the bookshop were present, three attorneys argued their case. They said that the six magazines were not obscene legally, a definition Williams said requires prosecutors to prove the materials provoke a "shameful and morbid interest in sex in the average adult."
Horan said Croatan Books was used as the test case because it had been convicted on charges of selling obscene materials more frequently than Educational Books. A grand jury this week indicted Educational Books on 10 charges of selling obscene magazines, said Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Richard MacDowell.