Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Jail time is part of trespass enforcement for day laborers

City police have joined with prosecutors in cracking down on congregating workers

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Gaithersburg Police have joined the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office in a partnership to discourage day laborers from congregating in parking lots along a three-block stretch of Route 355 near Olde Towne.

The trespass enforcement project has resulted in four arrests; two of them have been resolved in Montgomery County District Court.

In the first, Emmanuel Velasquez, a 21-year-old from Mexico, was arrested March 11 and spent two days at the county detention center. His case was heard on April 14.

Negotiations between Velasquez’s public defender Jennifer Dayton and Assistant State’s Attorney Sharon Diamant ended with an agreement that Velasquez serve 24 hours of community service and stay away from the Duvall Shopping Center.

‘‘He’s not going to jail for walking into a 7-Eleven parking lot,” Dayton told Diamant at one point during their discussions.

And on Monday, 25-year-old Henry Bianco Romero, also known as Henry Blanco, faced charges of trespassing and giving a false statement to police for lying about his name. Because he did not provide identification during or after his March 27 arrest, he was not released from jail until Monday, when Diamant dropped the charges saying Bianco had ‘‘more than enough punishment.”

City Councilwoman Cathy Drzyzgula and Olde Towne resident Clark Day spoke at Velasquez’s hearing, telling Judge Eugene Wolfe how extensive the impact of congregating day laborers has been on neighborhoods near Route 355. In a later interview, Drzyzgula said she was fine with the outcome.

‘‘We mostly just want something that will let people know that it really does matter that you follow the law,” she said.

The enforcement project comes about a year after the county government opened its most northerly employment center for day laborers, in Derwood. Two others operate in Wheaton and Silver Spring.

The police-prosecutor partnership, forged in recent months, has included outreach to both workers and contractors to encourage them to use the county center located on Crabbs Branch Way, about two miles from the most-used parking lots in Gaithersburg. Police give the workers repeated warnings and provide directions to the center. They also take workers’ photographs and compile identifying information in a database of known day laborers.

‘‘With the program we have set up, I think our response now is appropriate,” Gaithersburg Police Chief John King said in an interview. ‘‘It’s balanced, it’s fair and it addresses the problem that’s both real and perceived.”

Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy recently visited the enforcement area. He also met with members of the City Council and Casa of Maryland, which operates the county employment centers.

He has assigned two assistant state’s attorneys to handle all future trespass prosecutions of day laborers. And while he opposes Gaithersburg’s anti-solicitation law which makes curbside hires misdemeanor crimes, McCarthy sees his office’s partnership with the city as an appropriate answer to ‘‘a complicated and sensitive situation.”

‘‘If there are traditional crimes being committed that are destabilizing a community,... we have an obligation to clearly say to those citizens in Gaithersburg that we are going to make sure that the existing laws are effectively prosecuted,” he said.

In it’s year of operation, Casa officials say the Derwood center has arranged more than 6,200 temporary jobs and 49 permanent ones; has enrolled nearly 100 people in English classes; and has given more than a dozen seminars on worker safety, civil rights and legal aid.

Yet a handful of workers continue to frequent the Gaithersburg parking lots. Casa visits the parking lots every day to encourage workers to use the center, said spokesman Mario Quiroz.

Among the issues at play are the economic downturn, the bottoming-out of the housing market and the perception by some that it can be easier to find work on street corners, several workers at the employment center said in interviews.

‘‘When I was coming to this country, no one talked about this. They talked about there being work and that it was easy to get,” said Felix Ayala, a 50-year-old from Honduras who has used the day-laborer center exclusively since August. He sends money home to pay for five children to go to school.

Gaithersburg’s project began just as county police and the State’s Attorney’s Office were undertaking a two-week trespass enforcement at the intersection of Viers Mill and Randolph roads.

That enforcement was prompted by complaints from business owners and shoppers — many of them Latino — about congregating workers, Assistant State’s Attorney George Sims said during a April 17 meeting of county police Chief J. Thomas Manger’s Latino Liaison Committee.

In that enforcement, the county’s Office of Consumer Protection cited hiring contractors who were not properly licensed. Newly hired investigators issued six citations to people unfamiliar with state licensing regulations, said Ralph Vines, administrator of the consumer office.

The office did not pursue legal action but rather had the contractors sign documentation promising they would get licensed.