Police checking cars for drugs find lots of cash

January 03, 1992|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Evening Sun Staff

The amount of drug money seized on Maryland's highways rose sharply in the first half of 1991, and police intelligence officials say criminals may be moving larger sums in fewer shipments in an effort to reduce their chances of getting caught.

When they do get caught, however, the cash seizures are big ones, police say.

"Instead of multiple small amounts, what we seem to be seeing is larger amounts, and that's why we're coming up with higher amounts of money," says Capt. John P. Cook, commander of the Maryland State Police criminal intelligence unit.

"The thinking at one time was you go up [to New York, the source of much of Maryland's illegal drugs] and get a little bit," Cook says.

Under pressure from police surveillance and efforts to stop suspected drug traffickers on the highways, however, "the risk has gone up. . . . Plus, with the violence increasing, the more trips you make, the higher the risk," he adds.

Cash seizures by state troopers during traffic stops on the state's interstate highways totaled $310,377 during the first half of 1991, the latest data available.

That compares with just $75,000 during the first half of 1990. And, it was more than has been seized in any of the past five full calendar years.

"The projection is that we will far exceed that if the trend continued for the full year of 1991," Cook says. Those figures are still being compiled.

The volume of cash seized shot up in the first half of 1991 even though the number of traffic stops that yielded drug arrests declined, from 1,228 in 1990 to 1,016 during the same period in 1991.

Seizures of cocaine, PCP and methamphetamines also went up sharply in the first half of 1991, but the amounts of marijuana and heroin declined.

Cook notes that nearly $67,000 was confiscated in a single traffic stop on April 30. It was the largest single seizure reported by State Police during the first six months of 1991.

Two other major cash seizures took place during two May 20 traffic stops on Interstate 95. They netted a total of $37,898.

In another big case, drug traffickers tried to bypass the patrols on I-95 March 28 by using U.S. 40 near Perryville. They were stopped anyway, and the arresting officer found more than $19,000 in the car.

On June 12, two suspected drug smugglers were stopped for driving 61 mph on I-95. Tfc. John Appleby asked the two men in the Cadillac for identification and found what he suspected was cocaine on the passenger's ID card.

When the car was searched, officers found $5,042 and more than 71 pounds of cocaine. That one coke haul accounted for much of the cocaine -- 89 pounds -- seized by the State Police highway patrols during the six-month period. Only 12.9 pounds were confiscated during the same period the year before.

The highway bust later led investigators to two Prince George'sCounty homes and one business, where they found $125,000, plus thousands of dollars worth of furs and jewelry, 2 more pounds of drugs, weapons and 11 sticks of dynamite.

The seized drug money eventually finds its way to the state's general fund, Cook says, or to a federal program that turns it back over to law enforcement agencies for use in future drug investigations, for drug education programs or for the purchase of crime-fighting equipment.

Confiscation of the seized money does not hinge on conviction of the accused drug traffickers, Cook says. "It is considered contraband, separate from the evidence presented against the person."

State Police also have begun tracking the weapons being seized during traffic stops. The trends are not yet clear, but the guns being found by troopers are big and powerful.

The list for the first half of 1991 includes one TEC-9 semiautomatic pistol; a Smith & Wesson .357-caliber Magnum; an AR model J-15 assault rifle; a Taurus PT-92AF semiautomatic; Smith & Wesson 9mm model 439; and three smaller guns.

Although they are reluctant to call it a trafficker "profile," Maryland state troopers have been trained to watch for a variety of physical characteristics and behaviors that officers have noted during past arrests of people transporting drugs along the nation's highways.

They will pull drivers over for traffic violations, sometimes minor ones, then carefully observe the motorist's behavior during the encounter.

To understand what those characteristics are, Cook says, "put yourself in a car with 30 pounds of cocaine in your trunk that you don't own. When he [the driver] can't answer questions straight and he's nervous, that ignites the interest of the law enforcement officer, and he begins to question further."

While he's questioning the motorist, Cook says, the officer will note the coherence of the answers, while scanning the interior of the car for other indications that the traveler is what he claims to be.

In the end, police officials have said, if the trooper can't see anything obvious in the car that would constitute probable cause that a crime was being committed, he may ask directly if the motorist is carrying drugs or weapons. When the answer is no, he will then ask for permission to search the car.

With surprising frequency, even the real drug smugglers submit voluntarily to a search.

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