Anti-drug tactic criticized Westminster police 'buyback' called absurd by ACLU

March 21, 1993|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Staff Writer

Jodi Ann Daroja was acquitted last week of two drug charges from a November arrest in Westminster.

She and a friend, Denise Michelle Sojka, were interrogated, detained and searched by Westminster police Nov. 11 in what the arresting officers described as a possible drug deal involving the two 18-year-olds.

Ms. Daroja of Westminster was charged with possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia.

Ms. Sojka was charged in a different way. She was forced to pay the officers $487 -- the amount of cash she had in her purse -- in order to keep her car.

The police officers told Ms. Sojka, who was visiting from upstate New York, that because they found a marijuana pipe in her friend's purse they could seize the car and her cash, according to court records and people close to the case.

Or, the officers told her, she could give them the cash and she could keep her car.

Ms. Sojka "signed the waiver for forfeiture and the $487 was taken by this department," said a police report. She was never charged with a crime.

Ms. Sojka learned firsthand what a buyback -- a popular tool in the county's drug-enforcement community -- is all about. The players may change, but the story never does, civil libertarians say.

"That's got to be one of the worst cases I've ever heard of," said Stuart Comstock-Gay, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. "It's certainly outrageous. It's drug-mail, it's forfeiture-mail. And it's something that ought to stop."

But authorities here have no intention of stopping buybacks, forfeitures or any other effective deterrent to drug use and distribution.

The Westminster Police Department -- like the Carroll County Narcotics Task Force -- practices a local version of zero-tolerance: Any amount of drugs found in a car, near cash or on a stereo can result in the seizure of the property.

As with the task force, Westminster police routinely offer buyback agreements, in which the property owner -- charged with a crime or not -- agrees to pay cash in exchange for the property's return.

"It's real effective in dealing with drug cases," said Westminster Police Chief Sam R. Leppo. "Hey, she signed the waiver. If she signed the waiver, it was her choice. No pressure was put on her to sign it."

Ms. Daroja, who was acquitted of the drug charges Tuesday by Carroll District Judge JoAnn Ellinghaus-Jones, said that's not true.

"They started talking to her, telling her they're going to take the car and the money," Ms. Daroja said last week, recalling her experience with the police.

Court records show that both women were in Ms. Sojka's car -- parked at the end of East George Street -- waiting for a friend on the evening of Nov. 11. While they waited, a high-school acquaintance of Ms. Daroja's walked toward the brown 1987 Chevrolet Nova, exchanged pleasantries and walked away. Three Westminster police officers were watching.

"This is indicative of a drug transaction," Westminster Det. Michael Augerinos said in his report.

The detective reported that he "walked to the vehicle and asked the driver for I.D." and "called for a K-9 dog." The dog reacted to the possible presence of drugs, and police searched both women and the car. The officers found no drugs in the car. But they reported finding a small marijuana pipe -- with trace amounts of marijuana -- in Ms. Daroja's purse.

State law says police departments may seize and attempt to seek forfeiture of a vehicle if drugs are found in it. But police in most jurisdictions in the Baltimore metropolitan area don't pursue vehicles in cases involving such a small amount of drugs.

Mr. Comstock-Gay of the ACLU said Ms. Sojka's case is particularly disturbing. "This is the full absurdity of the forfeiture laws," he said. "Every American should be outraged by this. This is why we have a Constitution, so things like this don't happen."

Ms. Sojka could not be reached for comment last week. Ms. Daroja's defense lawyer, Assistant Public Defender Samuel Truette, declined to comment on the case.

But Ms. Daroja said the officers "gave us no choice." The buyback deal, she said, was made on the street, before the two women were taken to police headquarters.

"Look, I make my mistakes. I'm not a rich, first-class person, but I'm not a criminal," Ms. Daroja said. "They're trying real hard to get people, but they're not getting the right people."

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