Police seizure of car in misdemeanor reversed Judge calls action excessive

December 29, 1993|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,Staff Writer

Seizing a man's $13,000 Corvette because he bought some phony crack cocaine amounts to an excessive fine in violation of the Constitution, a Baltimore County judge has ruled.

William Garfield Witt, 30, bought a small amount of a substance that looked like the illegal drug at the Maple Crest apartments on Oct. 23, 1992. The seller turned out to be an undercover county police officer working on a "sting" operation to stop open drug dealing in the area.

Mr. Witt, who lives in Essex, had no criminal record. He received probation before judgment and a $100 fine on the misdemeanor in District Court.

But on Dec. 21, 1992, police seized his 1984 Corvette under Maryland law that allows the state to confiscate any property used in association with illegal drugs.

Circuit Judge J. Norris Byrnes noted that the forfeiture law applies even when "a person neither purchased nor possessed the actual controlled dangerous substance."

But the judge moved beyond that rigid law to the Maryland Declaration of Rights and the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment, which prohibit cruel and unusual punishment, and excessive bail or fines.

Applying those protections to Mr. Witt, Judge Byrnes wrote: "As a purchaser of a small amount of 'look-alike,' he could not even remotely be characterized as a 'drug-trafficker.' His intentions were for personal use and the use of his car was incidental to that goal.

"The gravity of the offense was infinitesimal in proportion to the loss of a $13,000 automobile," he concluded, and cited recent opinions by the U.S. Supreme Court and the Maryland Court of Appeals that overturned punishments found disproportionate to the crimes.

The Supreme Court case involved the seizure of a mobile home for the attempted sale of two ounces of cocaine to undercover federal agents. While the justices said the incident invoked the protection against excessive fines, they left the decision to the lower courts whether the crime justified the forfeiture.

County prosecutors could not be reached for comment yesterday on Mr. Witt's case, but they had anticipated the decision and were not expected to appeal.

Defense attorney Norman R. Stone III said, "The statute on its face appears to allow the forfeiture of the car, but it just didn't seem fair. Fortunately for Mr. Witt, the Eighth Amendment still exists to prohibit excessive fines."

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