Police chief sued over deal on defendant's car

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

A 23-year-old drug defendant is suing to get out of an agreement he made with Westminster police to "buy back" his confiscated car.

Michael D. Magruder of the first block of S. Charles St. was arrested Dec. 1 and charged by city police with possession of cocaine and possession of drug paraphernalia, Carroll District Court records show.

According to court charging documents, police seized his 1989 Ford Escort because they found cocaine in it. When Mr. Magruder asked how he could recover his car-- which he said he needed to get to his $150-a-week job at a restaurant -- he was told to contact Assistant State's Attorney Barton F. Walker III, coordinator of the Carroll County Narcotics Task Force.

According to the suit, filed in Carroll Circuit Court yesterday morning, Mr. Walker offered to "sell" the car back to Mr. Magruder for $1,000, then agreed to accept $500.

Mr. Magruder was to pay Westminster Police Chief Sam R. Leppo -- who handles all seized property for the task force -- in two installments, $300 on Dec. 13 and $200 on Dec. 17, the suit says.

The suit, filed against Chief Leppo, asks for return of the car and of $200 that Mr. Magruder paid Dec. 14. Westminster attorney Judith S. Stainbrook, who filed the suit, says the buy-back agreement made between Mr. Magruder and Chief Leppo is unconstitutional.

"It is the practice and custom for some of these vehicles to be 'bought back' from the state by their owners rather than forfeited under the forfeiture laws, even though the state has no right, title or interest in the vehicles and has no legal authority whatsoever to 'sell' the vehicles to their lawful owners," the suit says.

Chief Leppo, who was served with the suit yesterday afternoon, declined to comment.

In the past year, the buy-back policies of the task force have come under fire from the American Civil Liberties Union, defense attorneys and, most recently, County Commissioner Julia W. Gouge. Last week, Ms. Gouge said buy-backs are unfair and have the potential for prosecutorial abuse.

Mr. Walker and the task force have defended the practice, saying it is a quick and equitable way to settle forfeiture issues and is an effective weapon in the war on drugs.

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