Landlords seek to overturn Martinsburg “drug house” ordinance

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MARTINSBURG, W.Va. (WDVM) — It has been controversial since the ordinance was put on the books in Martinsburg several years ago: putting landlords on the hook for drug activity of their tenants.

Landlords have not been happy with the law. But as of just last week there is a new administration in city hall – a new mayor, a new look on council. And there’s a new chief of police. Maybe now is the time to take another look at the law.

The landlords say the law is unfair, asking why they should be liable for the personal behavior of those to whom they lease. And the law is a disincentive to investment in residential property, they say – something that could help revitalize the city. A lawyer for the landlords hopes the recent election of a new mayor, city council and appointment of a new police chief will bring about a change.

“You know, if we still had the same police chief, and the same mayor and the same city council, they may feel like this was an attack on their former performance,” says Christian Riddell, lawyer for the landlords. “I think having these new elections and some new people in place kind of gives them a real opportunity to start fresh.”

And the landlords contend they should not have to do the work of law enforcement.

“You know, it’s not the landlord’s job to go and arrest these people,” says landlord John Orem. “It’s the police department’s job.”

And Riddell says the law on the books now is not only cumbersome, it violates the Constitution, it denies due process.

“There’s never a hearing,” says Riddell. “There’s never any notice to either the landlord or the tenant. There’s never an opportunity to contest the allegations or plead innocent or anything like that.”

Martinsburg’s new mayor, Harriet Johnson, said on the day of her August 5 swearing-in that tackling the drug problem in her city was among her highest priorities. She is presiding over the Thursday night council meeting. While we may not have a resolution then and there, at least the conversation is starting.

The landlords say that, if unsuccessful swaying city council, they plan to challenge the ordinance in Berkeley County Circuit Court.

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