Banana Republic Law Enforcement CARROLL COUNTY

February 22, 1993

The Carroll County Drug Task Force's heavy-handed use of the state's drug forfeiture law in cases involving small quantities of contraband is a misuse of an important tool in the war against drugs. The task force's abusive application of the forfeiture law could result in a public outcry against the law.

As The Sun's Darren Allen reported, the county's drug task force routinely invokes the law in a way that leaves the appearance the law enforcement organization extorted money from people who have not been charged, let alone convicted, of drug offenses. When it does this, the drug task force violates the Fourth Amendment right of Americans to "be secure in their persons, papers, houses and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures."

Federal, state and other county agencies are very careful to separate enforcement of the forfeiture law from the criminal law, to ensure that due process is closely followed.

All too often, the Carroll task force has used property seizure as a bargaining chip; the task force officers promise to drop criminal charges against people willing to buy back their seized property. For many of the accused, the confiscation of a car or valuable property is more damaging than the charges, and they will do anything to get their property returned.

Moreover, the spectacle of having arresting officers haggle over the price of seized property seems more appropriate in a banana republic than in the United States of America.

Why does the task force so zealously apply the forfeiture provision? From appearances, it would seem that the proceeds are being used to finance the task force operations. We have no way of knowing, however, because Barton F. Walker III, who heads the task force, refuses to account for the seizures and their disposal. That's unacceptable.

At present, the task force is accountable to no one. It's not under the control of the state's attorney, the state police or county government. It has evolved, dangerously, into a power unto itself. As a result, it is not surprising that the task force abuses the law and has not had to answer for it.

Property forfeiture laws can be effective in dealing with drug offenders, but this tool must be employed in a constitutional manner.

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