A man is arrested during a police raid in July at 546 Main Street in Bennington

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Bennington County State’s Attorney Erica Marthage and Deputy SAs Robert Plunkett and Jared Bianchi took an important step last week in the fight to keep criminal drug dealers from moving into our region, bringing violent crime and devastating addiction into our neighborhoods.

Marthage’s office put landlords on notice: They are responsible for what happens at their properties; they can no longer ignore the persistent criminal actions of their tenants and others using their buildings, houses and apartments; failure to swiftly resolve these issues will hit where it hurts – their bank accounts. They will face lawsuits, and if they lose, they will pay.

“For too long landlords have turned a blind eye to what is happening in their rental units,” Marthage told the Banner. “The purpose of this is not to just put pressure on drug users or drug dealers, but it’s also to make sure that landlords grasp the idea that you can’t just be this absentee landlord from Florida or whatever, renting these apartments without caring about what happened there.”

Bravo. The Banner could not agree more.

She is using the state’s Common Nuisance law – which is legally untested for this purpose – to enable our municipality to sue entities like corporate, out of state and absentee landlords for monetary damages when they allow continued “open and notorious drug use and trafficking” and other serious offenses at the properties.

Her first case is aimed at the owner of a property at 546 Main St. in Bennington, the scene of a dramatic police raid in July that led to seven drug-related arrests. The attorney for the owner, a limited liability trust called Astrum, which is owned by Michael Harte, told the Banner that Harte began eviction proceedings at the property immediately upon hearing about the incident.

But this location, and several others like it around the downtown area, have been the scene of repeated police visits for similar infractions. The time for justifications and excuses is past due.

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Bennington, like communities across Vermont, has seen a significant increase in drug-related crimes that involve cash, weapons, violence and even murder. Law enforcement is doing its best to stay on top of the situation and making it as difficult as possible to set up shop in Bennington. But law enforcement cannot do this alone.

This is an urgent problem that demands urgent solutions.

Marthage’s decision to move aggressively to ensure landlords take responsibility for their piece of this growing problem reflects that urgency.

These properties that are the scene of raids, arrests, kidnappings, shootings and murder are located on streets that are also home to families with children, law abiding residents who now find their properties are located in neighborhoods where crime has moved in and driven home values down.

In addition, the Banner continues to advocate for a Hub (a comprehensive drug treatment facility) for Bennington. We hear that talks are underway to bring a Hub to our community, but we are anxious for talks to become reality. The best way to stem this tide of drug-related violence is to help our residents recover from addiction or avoid it altogether.

In addition to prosecuting criminal drug dealers, the State’s Attorney’s office is now appropriately turning up the heat on the landlords who are enabling this activity. This approach will be tested in a courtroom; for the sake of communities throughout Vermont, we hope Marthage prevails.


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