Paying the Wrong Piper

September 12, 1992

You fork over the cash to pay some parking fines and get a receipt. The next thing you know, the city is dunning you for the money again because the clerk pocketed your payment and was last seen in Rio de Janeiro. Because the erstwhile trusted public servant didn't put the money in the municipal bank account, the city says you must pay again.

It's that kind of maddening illogic that flows from the stand of Baltimore prosecutors in refusing to return money seized in a drug arrest a year ago. They agreed to return the money to a Florida man given probation on drug distribution charges, then reneged because the funds were stolen by a Maryland Toll Facilities officer who originally confiscated the cash during the arrest. The officer later committed suicide.

We never actually got the money, so we don't have to return it, the state's attorney told the accused. The prosecutor told the judge the toll police wouldn't keep the court-approved accord to give back the $3,100.

There are myriad problems with the property forfeiture provisions of the drug laws; horror stories of accused persons who are not convicted but find their seized property is devalued or not returned or recovery is delayed. At the same time, the public realizes that forfeiture of cash or property linked to drugs puts teeth into the crusade against the dealers awash in loot from their toxic trade.

In this case, the amount of money is relatively small and the conflict centers on an agreement to return the funds, not on the legality of the forfeiture law. Last week, the city was leaning toward giving back the money, and dunning the Toll Facilities Police for it.

But the government's initial argument serves to undermine the trust of ordinary citizens, who assume they have a valid receipt when they pay their property taxes or permit fees or court charges in cash. The individual, not the government, must take the risk that civil servants are honest? That makes zero sense.

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