Carroll task force makes drug seizures lucrative County goes too far, some residents say

February 18, 1993|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Staff Writer

Westminster homemaker Marie S. Boyd became a hostage in the nation's war on drugs. But her problem wasn't with thugs in the drug trade. It was with the police.

Mrs. Boyd had to pay the Carroll County Narcotics Task Force $2,000 to buy her car back after it was seized by police who found less than an ounce of her 33-year-old daughter's cocaine inside. She says her experience was frustrating, humiliating and insulting. But she's not alone.

While most Baltimore area police departments say they use forfeiture laws primarily against big-time drug dealers, Carroll's task force routinely goes after bit players, and people like Mrs. Boyd who are only marginally linked to drugs. In 32 raids last year, the task force found a total of 11 pounds of marijuana, less than a pound of cocaine, and a smattering of other drugs.

The cars, computers and other property taken during such raids often are sold back to the owners, providing the bulk of the task force's budget. Most of those deals are made privately -- only about a dozen civil forfeiture cases make it to court each year -- and the task force refuses to say how much the seizures bring in.

These practices have raised questions about whether the task force is using forfeiture laws as they were intended -- to take the profit out of drug dealing -- or abusing them to get money for its crime-fighting efforts.

Forfeiture laws give prosecutors extraordinary power, allowing them to seize property linked to drugs even if the person is not charged or convicted. Carroll's liberal use of the laws has angered civil libertarians, defense attorneys and even some prosecutors.

"That's absolutely outrageous," says Stuart Comstock-Gay, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. "I don't want to call it extortion, but, well, let's just say it doesn't smell very pretty."

Barton F. Walker III, the assistant state's attorney who coordinates the task force, couldn't disagree more strongly. He sees using forfeiture laws as one way to make sure Carroll County never develops the same drug problems that afflict big cities.

"It's all relative, that's the bottom line," he says. "If we don't

aggressively utilize the laws and prosecute these cases for 'small amount' violations of the law, we're going to end up with the same problems as the cities."

Casting a wide net

Carroll's task force, made up of state troopers, sheriff's deputies and Westminster police officers, is responsible for most county drug investigations, arrests and prosecutions. It differs in key ways from other area agencies fighting the war on drugs.

While investigations in most jurisdictions are handled by narcotics divisions within police departments, Carroll's task force independent of any police agency. It answers only to an advisory board made up of State's Attorney Thomas E. Hickman, Sheriff John H. Brown, Westminster Police Chief Sam R. Leppo and State Police Sgt. John Burton.

State police say there are 13 other drug units in Maryland similar to Carroll's, mostly in rural counties. Those groups, like Carroll's, are cooperative ventures among several police agencies. But, officials say, they are under more direct control from the state police than Carroll's task force.

The task force also handles forfeiture claims differently from other jurisdictions, according to copies of buy-back agreements provided to The Sun by defense attorneys.

Sometimes, the same officer who conducts a raid will negotiate -- during an interrogation -- the deal to let the person whose car or computer was seized buy it back, the documents show. Mr. Walker and Sergeant Burton both deny that officers are involved in buy-back negotiations.

Allowing people whose property has been seized to buy it back is not uncommon, but it is unusual for street-level police officers to be involved in negotiations. In most jurisdictions, and in federal cases as well, officials say they attempt to keep the line between arresting officer and asset forfeiture clearly drawn to avoid any appearance of unreasonable pressure.

"We have a separate prosecutor to handle asset forfeiture," says Assistant State's Attorney Jerry Barnes, a former Carroll prosecutor who heads a Frederick County drug task force. "They're parallel processes, but for the most part they never meet."

Perhaps the most important distinction is the kinds of cases Carroll pursues.

"If people are breaking the law, and we find that they are, we'll go after them," says Sergeant Burton. The task force conducted 32 raids last year, made 116 arrests and seized a total of 11 pounds of marijuana, 8 ounces of cocaine, 4.5

ounces of crack, 6.5 grams of heroin, 152 doses of LSD and 2 ounces of hashish.

Both Sergeant Burton and Mr. Walker say the task force will seize property if investigators can establish any link to drug use or distribution.

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