Drug Task Force May Have To Go

COMMENT

January 02, 1994|By BRIAN SULLAM

It is time to give serious thought to disbanding the Carroll County Narcotics Task Force and turning the county's drug enforcement efforts over to the Maryland State Police's drug unit.

Over the past year, it has become increasingly clear that the county task force does a mediocre job of law enforcement, arresting small-time dealers and users but ignoring the open-air drug markets in Westminster. It also spends an inordinate amount of time undoing mistakes that a professionally run law enforcement agency would never make.

The best argument, however, for rethinking Carroll's current drug enforcement practices was a Dec. 21 hearing involving Michael F. Cartwright, a confidential informant for the task force. Although the Cartwright case was ostensibly a traffic violation, it gave the rest of us a glimpse into a world in which criminal charges can be "worked off," constitutional guarantees of due process can be cavalierly ignored and obeying the law seems to be discretionary.

Even the normally unflappable Circuit Court Judge Francis M. Arnold, who presided over the case, was moved to say that some of the testimony he heard was "disturbing."

Cartwright, a 21-year-old convicted felon, was stopped last summer in Taneytown for speeding. The Taneytown officer discovered that Cartwright shouldn't have been driving because his license had been revoked.

Cartwright faced a possible year in jail for that infraction. But he also was facing a 10-year sentence for violating the probation he received on an earlier conviction for participating in thefts of about $80,000 from Baugher's Enterprises.

Rather than contact an attorney, Cartwright said he wanted to speak to state police Tfc. Robert Heuisler, a member of the Carroll County Narcotics Task Force. Cartwright, who had been an informant since 1991, offered to resume a more active role if the task force "helped" him with the traffic violation.

Cartwright, who identified several drug sellers, bought dope from them and helped the task force obtain convictions, apparently thought he had fulfilled his obligation.

When Cartwright showed up in District Court Oct. 18 for the driving on a revoked license charge, instead of being taken care of, he found he had to fend for himself. He did not have an attorney. Barton F. Walker III, the county state's attorney's representative on the task force, didn't even recognize him.

When Cartwright related his problem to Judge Arnold in a bench conference, the judge's response was that this was not the first time he heard such a story. "I think you know -- well, this came up once before. . . .," he said to Edward Ulsch, the prosecutor handling Cartwright's traffic case.

At Cartwright's hearing two weeks ago, another informant told a remarkably similar story.

Patricia Fahnestock testified that after she received a second charge of driving while intoxicated, she was promised no jail time on that charge if she helped the county's drug task force.

Mrs. Fahnestock bought drugs for the task force on several occasions, but her cooperation did her little good. Like Cartwright, she found herself in court without a lawyer. Even though she had helped the task force, she received a sentence of seven days in jail.

In neither case did the task force tell these people to obtain lawyers to represent their interests. In fact, Mr. Walker made it clear that it wasn't the state's obligation. "I am not going to wipe his nose or tie his shoes or make sure he has a lawyer," he said.

Even more outrageous is the task force's cavalier attitude toward obeying the law. Although two of its informants were prohibited from driving, the task force allowed them to drive to make drug buys.

Mrs. Fahnestock recounted how she drove herself to drug buys even though her driver's license had been suspended -- of which the task force members were well aware.

"I told her she was allowed to drive only when she was working with me," said state police Tfc. Donald Grimes, who had been a member of the task force until last February. "I told her that if she was ever caught driving and anything happened, I couldn't help her."

Cartwright recounted the same tale.

Judge Arnold said it was "disturbing" that people were driving while on suspended licenses.

One can only wonder whether the task force turns a blind eye to other violations committed by their informants.

The notion that the task force will help lawbreakers "work off" traffic and criminal charges in exchange for providing information on drug sales and buying drugs from suspected dealers leads to the belief that law enforcement is a bazaar where everything and anything is up for sale.

It is no small wonder that the task force engages in "buy backs" when it arrests suspects.

Rather than prosecute suspects before an impartial judiciary, the task force believes justice is better served when it seizes property and then forces suspects to ransom it back without dealing with courts and defense attorneys.

Even though the task force is a public body, it has been behaving as though it does not have to account to anyone except its board of directors. Its arrangement is unique, even frightening, and should be changed.

Judge Arnold probably best described this whole situation when he said, "I don't like it one damn bit."

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

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