Task Force Trips On Own Shortcuts

COMMENT

June 20, 1993|By BRIAN SULLAM

Investigating, apprehending and prosecuting drug dealers and users is time-consuming work, but the Carroll County Narcotics Task Force has become too reliant on shortcuts to do its business.

These tactics finally caught up with the task force when it tried to convict Pamela Snowhite Davis, a 48-year-old self-described "old hippie," for possession and distribution of marijuana seeds. The Davis case shows there are some troubling aspects to the task force's approach to drug enforcement.

From her initial arrest on May 7, 1992, Davis has challenged the task force's standard operating procedures. Rather than buy back her seized property, she filed a lawsuit. Rather than plea bargain, she asked for a jury trial. Rather than show contrition, she has been defiant.

Make no mistake, Davis is suffering the consequences: She is serving a two-year sentence at the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women in Jessup for the March conviction of possession of less than one ounce of marijuana.

Davis came to the attention of Carroll's narcotics task force when it was notified by California police that United Parcel Service had reported that one of its dogs had discovered about 1.5 ounces of marijuana in a package addressed to Davis' 80-acre farm in Silver Run.

Disguised as a UPS delivery man, a task force officer brought the resealed package to the house, where it was accepted. The task force raided the home and discovered a very small amount of marijuana on a night stand beside Davis' bed, along with a grow light, a water pipe and some drug magazines. Since it found drugs, the task force also seized the computer and records of Davis' import-export business.

In taking Davis' computer, the task force members -- who answer an advisory board composed of the county's state's attorney, Thomas H. Hickman, and Sheriff John Brown, Westminster Police Chief Sam R. Leppo and State Police Sgt. John Burton -- followed their standard practice.

They may have wanted to examine the records on the computer for evidence of drug trafficking, but, more important, they wanted to hold the computer hostage. They wanted Davis to ransom it.

While seizure of property associated with drug use is legal, in Carroll the task force uses property seizure as a surrogate for prosecution. In 1992, it conducted 32 raids and found a smattering of drugs -- 11 pounds of marijuana, a half-pound of cocaine and small amounts of other drugs -- but it seized cars, computers and other valuables. All this property was sold back to the owners and the drug charges were dropped. There were no complex investigations or protracted trials.

Davis decided not to go along with the buy-back scenario and filed suit to recover her computer and records.

When Carroll Circuit Court Judge Francis M. Arnold indicated he was prepared to rule in Davis' favor, Mr. Walker returned the computer and business records.

Davis was also offered a deal: Plead guilty to possession and accept probation before judgment. Davis refused the offer because she said the required urinalysis was demeaning. Mr. Walker took the case to court and convicted her.

When the task force discovered some of the hemp seeds she openly gave away at her Westminster counterculture store germinated at the state police lab, the task force brought a second case against her.

There was a problem with that: The police never let the seeds grow, so there was no way of knowing whether they were marijuana.

Despite this lack of hard evidence of drug possession, Mr. Walker took the case to trial. When another Circuit Court judge, Luke K. Burns, pointed out the lack of evidence of drug possession, Mr. Walker used a tactic that had been successful in his previous prosecution of Davis: associating the possession of literature, handbills and posters advocating the use of marijuana with actual possession of drugs.

While that ploy apparently worked with the jury in Davis' first trial, it was not very convincing to Judge Burns, who acquitted her. Mr. Walker tried to make the case that Davis' advocacy for marijuana legalization explicity included the distribution of seeds.

"It doesn't make sense to sell all these books on how to grow marijuana without actually giving people the seeds to do it with," he said.

Trying to win a conviction of marijuana possession on the mere possession of pro-marijuana literature provides a hint of the task force's thinking: Advocacy is tantamount to possession in its eyes.

A more revealing comment came during closing arguments, when Mr. Walker said that Davis had no motive to be truthful because if she did, "she would have come in here and pleaded guilty."

The assumption underlying those words is that because she was arrested, she is guilty. This is the kind of thinking that evolves when the government uses buy-backs to mete out justice: You are presumed guilty but can wipe the slate clean by turning over a few hundred dollars to the narcotics task force.

During this period of zealous investigating and prosecuting of Davis, a young man was murdered at an open-air drug market in Westminster. Only after this murder was the market effectively shut down.

Certainly, if the task force had its priorities in order, it would have focused its attention on the open peddling of drugs rather than on the open advocacy of marijuana.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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