Martin v. Howard County, 13

Citation709 A.2d 125,349 Md. 469
Decision Date01 September 1996
Docket NumberNo. 13,13
PartiesSandra K. MARTIN v. HOWARD COUNTY, Maryland. ,
CourtCourt of Appeals of Maryland

Debra Gardner, Legal Aid Bureau, Inc., Frederick, for petitioner.

F. Todd Taylor, Jr., Senior Asst. County Solicitor (Barbara M. Cook, Howard County Solicitor, on brief), Ellicott City, for respondent.

Jane E. Schukoske, Denise M. Duval, Baltimore, for Amicus Curiae Franklin Square Community Association, Inc.

Argued before BELL, C.J., and ELDRIDGE, RODOWSKY, CHASANOW, KARWACKI * and RAKER, JJ.

ELDRIDGE, Judge.

Maryland Code (1974, 1996 Repl.Vol.), § 14-120 of the Real Property Article, creates a cause of action to "abate" a nuisance when real property is used in connection with certain controlled dangerous substances or controlled paraphernalia. The plaintiff in this case filed a complaint under § 14-120, seeking an order requiring a tenant to vacate a federally subsidized apartment and seeking restitution of the property to the landlord. The question presented is whether, in light of the nature of this proceeding, Article 23 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights gives the tenant a right to a jury trial. 1

I.

Before turning to the facts of this case, we shall briefly review § 14-120 of the Real Property Article. Section 14-120 was enacted by Ch. 505 of the Acts of 1991. According to the title of Ch. 505, the enactment was "[f]or the purpose of permitting certain persons to bring an action to abate a nuisance when certain property is being used for certain controlled dangerous substance offenses."

Subsections (a)(3) and (a)(4) of § 14-120 together define the meaning of "nuisance" for purposes of the statute as follows:

"(3) 'Controlled dangerous substances' has the meaning stated in Article 27, § 279(a) and (b) of the Code.

"(4) 'Nuisance' means a property that is used:

(i) By persons who assemble for the specific purpose of illegally administering a controlled dangerous substance;

(ii) For the illegal manufacture, or distribution of:

1. A controlled dangerous substance; or

2. Controlled paraphernalia, as defined in Article 27, § 287(d) of the Code; or (iii) For the illegal storage or concealment of a controlled dangerous substance in sufficient quantity to reasonably indicate under all the circumstances an intent to manufacture, distribute, or dispense:

1. A controlled dangerous substance; or

2. Controlled paraphernalia, as defined in Article 27, § 287(d) of the Code."

With respect to leasehold property, subsection (a)(6)(i) defines a "tenant" as "the lessee or a person occupying property, whether or not a party to a lease."

Section 14-120(b) specifies that the judicial proceedings authorized by the statute are under Code (1974, 1996 Repl.Vol.), § 4-401 of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article, which provides for actions within the exclusive original civil jurisdiction of the District Court of Maryland. Thus, an action under § 14-120 must initially be brought in the District Court. Subsection (b) goes on to specify that the action

"may be brought by:

(1) The State's Attorney of the county in which the nuisance is located;

(2) The county attorney or solicitor of the county in which the nuisance is located; or

(3) A community association within whose boundaries the nuisance is located."

Subsections (e) and (f) delineate the remedies available in an action under § 14-120. Subsection (e), relating to equitable remedies, states as follows:

"(e) The court may issue an injunction or order other equitable relief whether or not an adequate remedy exists at law."

Subsection (f) provides for additional remedies as follows:

"(f)(1) Notwithstanding any other provision of law, and in addition to or as a component of any remedy ordered under subsection (e) of this section, the court, after a hearing, may order a tenant with knowledge of the existence of the nuisance to vacate the property within 72 hours.

(2) The court, after a hearing, may grant a judgment of restitution or the possession of the property to the owner if:

(i) The owner and lessee are parties to the action; and

(ii) A tenant has failed to obey an order under subsection (e) of this section or paragraph (1) of this subsection.

(3) If the court orders restitution of the possession of the property under paragraph (2) of this subsection, the court shall immediately issue its warrant to the sheriff or constable commanding execution of the warrant within 5 days after issuance of the warrant.

(4) The court may order the owner of the property to submit for court approval a plan of correction to ensure, to the extent reasonably possible, that the property will not again be used for a nuisance if:

(i) The owner is a party to the action; and

(ii) The owner knew of the existence of the nuisance."

The remaining provisions of the statute concern the admissibility of evidence in an action under § 14-120, costs, attorney's fees, and times for appeal.

II.

In 1994 Howard County, pursuant to § 14-120, filed a "Complaint for Abatement of Nuisance and Restitution of Possession of the Premises" in the District Court of Maryland sitting in Howard County. 2 The defendants were Columbia Housing Limited Partnership, Sandra Kay Martin, and Van Albert Carroll. The County alleged that Columbia Housing owned a townhouse at 5519 Cedar Lane, Columbia, Maryland, and that Martin and Carroll were tenants therein. The County further alleged that the tenants' rent was "subsidized by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, pursuant to [Chapter] 8 of [Title 42 of] the United States Code." The complaint went on to assert that Martin and Carroll "have knowingly permitted the leased premises to be used for the distribution of a controlled dangerous substance, controlled paraphernalia, or the illegal storage or concealment of a controlled dangerous substance in sufficient quantity to indicate ... an intent to distribute or dispense the same." Howard County's complaint requested the following specific relief in addition to costs and attorney's fees:

"(a) Order Defendants Sandra K. Martin and Van Albert Carroll to vacate the property within 72 hours after a hearing on this matter;

"(b) Grant Defendant Columbia Homes Limited Partnership restitution of possession of the property...."

Martin filed a timely request for a jury trial. After some procedural skirmishing in the District Court, the case was transferred to the Circuit Court for Howard County. 3 The County filed a motion in the circuit court to strike the demand for a jury trial, asserting that the action was equitable in nature and that, therefore, there was no right to a jury trial under Article 23 of the Declaration of Rights. This motion was initially denied by the circuit court.

The County also filed a new complaint in the circuit court which was identical to the complaint filed in the District Court except for the title and caption. The title was changed from "Complaint for Abatement of Nuisance and Restitution of Possession of the Premises" to "Complaint For Injunctive Relief." Nevertheless, the new complaint, like the old one, did not request an injunction against the continuation of the alleged nuisance. The only specific relief requested was an order requiring Martin and Carroll to vacate the premises, an order granting restitution of the property to the landlord, costs and attorney's fees. 4 The defendant Martin filed an answer to the circuit court complaint, denying the allegations that the defendant Carroll was a tenant or resident of the townhouse, and denying the allegations concerning nuisance, controlled dangerous substances, and controlled paraphernalia. 5 The case was scheduled for a jury trial to be held on January 9, 1995.

When the case was called for trial on January 9, 1995, counsel for the defendant landlord stated that the landlord agreed with the County's position and "consent[ed]" to the relief sought by the County. The circuit court thereupon directed the clerk to enter a judgment against the landlord; a "judgment against def. Columbia Housing" was entered on the docket, and the landlord was not thereafter treated as a party. 6

Next on January 9, 1995, before jury selection began, and during remarks by the County's attorney when the attorney referred to the caption of the complaint as a "Complaint for Injunctive Relief," the circuit judge sua sponte raised the issue of the defendant Martin's entitlement to a jury trial. The County reiterated its argument that the proceeding was equitable in nature and that "one does not have a constitutional right to a jury trial [in an action to enjoin] a nuisance." While acknowledging that it sought the eviction of the tenants and an order restoring the property to the landlord, the County distinguished Carroll v. Housing Opportunities Comm'n, 306 Md. 515, 510 A.2d 540 (1986), and similar cases "in the federal system," on the ground that those cases involved evictions and restitution of premises under leases, whereas the eviction and restitution in the present case were sought by a government entity under a statute. The County also stated that it was not relying on any argument that the amount in controversy, i.e. the value of the right to possession, was insufficient to trigger the constitutional right to a jury trial. Instead, the County made it clear that it was relying on the nature of the proceeding.

Martin's attorney argued that if the county were only seeking an injunction to stop the continuation of the alleged nuisance, pursuant to subsection (e) of § 14-120, Martin "would be happy" to forego a jury trial. Nevertheless, Martin's attorney went on to point out that, instead of seeking an injunction under subsection (e), the County was seeking to evict Martin and restore the property to the landlord. According to Martin's attorney, since "we are talking about taking her right to a possessory interest in the property, then she does have her right to a...

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