- The Washington Times - Monday, March 26, 2001

The D.C. government no longer can remove pay phones without proof they are being used for illegal activity under new rules announced recently.

Under old rules, "suspicious activity" near or involving pay telephones was enough for the Public Service Commission which regulates utilities to order removal of the phones.

The agency changed its policy last month after complaints from telephone companies and a lawsuit was filed by Verizon Communications. Verizon, formerly Bell Atlantic, said the agency had no right to remove its pay phones if they are only suspected of being used by drug dealers.

"We will comply with what the court told us to do," says Timothy Robinson, the commission's general counsel.

The commission had ordered Bell Atlantic to remove a public telephone near 1106 H St. NE following complaints from merchants and residents that the telephone was used by drug dealers. They said the telephone's presence contributed to loitering, drinking and littering in the area.

The telephone company argued the term "suspicious activity" was too vague and arbitrary. The D.C. Court of Appeals agreed in a decision last month and ordered the commission to define the term more clearly before invoking its authority to have working public telephones removed.

Even before the court's ruling, some residents and police had asked the city in public hearings to remove pay phones quickly when drug dealers start using them.

The telephone companies, however, said more evidence was needed.

"We try to deploy pay phones where there is a public need and it is consistent with the wishes of our customers," says Catherine Lewis, Verizon spokeswoman. "We don't just go out and search for a place to put a phone. We put them where our customers want them."

She says Verizon intends to cooperate with police but that the court's decision last month was correct.

"The court's order was that suspicious activity was not sufficiently defined in this case," Mrs. Lewis says. "We agree with that."

Mack James, a member of a D.C. government Advisory Neighborhood Commission in the Columbia Heights area, says, "I'm disappointed in the decision. I would hope they would rethink it to give the community the right to comment on how to run their own community."

He also criticizes Verizon, saying, "All they're interested in is making a nickel and dime. We have to live with it when we walk by those phones every day."

However, Lenwood Johnson, another ANC member, says, "There are a lot of people who use pay phones for legitimate reasons. If the court said you can't remove pay phones just because they are suspected of being used by drug dealers, I agree with the court."

He also questions the importance of pay phones in the drug trade, saying most dealers use cellular phones.

The Public Service Commission's new rules, required by the D.C. Court of Appeals in the Verizon lawsuit, eliminate the vaguely defined "suspicious activity" as a basis for ordering telephone removals. Instead, people filing a complaint must prove "illegal activity" or "public nuisance."

"That means anybody can come in and bring a complaint. Now we're asking complainants to come in with better evidence to substantiate their complaints," Mr. Robinson says.

The public hearings influenced the commission to change its rules even more than the Verizon lawsuit, he says.

"We heard from the community, heard from pay phone providers, and we realized that the concerns that were voiced went more to illegal activity and nuisance behavior than suspicious activity."

The Public Service Commission is preparing a response to the court's order explaining that any confusion created by "suspicious activity" has been eliminated under its new rules. Mr. Robinson says he expects the case to be resolved "within the next month."

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