Task force rebuked over seizure

January 09, 1994|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Staff Writer

For the Carroll County Narcotics Task Force, Matthew Rotolante's $22,000 Nissan Pathfinder was supposed to be the reward for finding a microscopic quantity of marijuana during a ,, routine traffic stop.

Instead, their pursuit of his 1992 Pathfinder ended with a stinging rebuke by a judge, who said the task force ignored and misused the state's forfeiture laws in its attempt to keep the sport-utility vehicle.

"The power to forfeit a person's property, sell it and retain the proceeds for one's own use is great," Carroll Circuit Judge Luke K. Burns Jr. wrote late last month in his dismissal of the task force's forfeiture suit.

Judge Burns cited the lack of a thorough review of Mr. Rotolante and his connection to drugs by the task force and State's Attorney Thomas E. Hickman that the judge said was required by the state forfeiture law.

In this case, "No properly executed oath or affirmation is contained in the complaint" for forfeiture, the judge wrote. "Rather, this statutorially mandated safeguard appears in the form of a rubber stamped replica of Mr. Hickman's signature.

"The legislature of this state deemed certain factors significant in all cases where seizure is contemplated, and it mandated that these factors be considered and weighed in each instance. . . . The forfeiting authority did not comply with the prerequisites giving it the power to seize and sell a person's property.

"We are well cognizant of the strictures within which we consider whether to grant the complaint for forfeiture," Judge Burns wrote. "We believe that our task consists of more than functioning as a rubber stamp to allow the forfeiture of every piece of property sought by the forfeiting authority."

Mr. Rotolante was driving the Pathfinder on Route 140 on April 15 when he was stopped by a state trooper who clocked him doing 73 mph in a 55-mph zone.

The trooper noticed a small red pipe in Mr. Rotolante's right boot and asked him to step out of the vehicle. The trooper suspected that the pipe was caked with marijuana residue, and he arrested Mr. Rotolante.

A search of the Pathfinder yielded an altered Florida driver's license. No drugs were found.

A state police laboratory technician confirmed that the residue on the pipe was marijuana.

Mr. Rotolante was charged with possession of marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia. The trooper seized his vehicle, and it was transferred to the drug task force.

Mr. Rotolante, a 19-year-old student at Gettysburg College, owned the Pathfinder free and clear.

The two criminal charges against him eventually were placed on the inactive court docket, but the task force pursued the forfeiture case for his vehicle.

Aggressive action

The task force usually wins its forfeiture cases, because state law gives it the authority to seize any property linked -- however marginally -- to the use, sale or distribution of illegal drugs. Of more than two dozen forfeiture cases that have made their way to Carroll Circuit Court in the past 18 months, the task force has lost three.

But Judge Burns didn't like what he saw in Mr. Rotolante's case when the forfeiture was argued before him Oct. 22.

At the hearing, according to people who were in the courtroom, the judge said he doubted that the task force would have seized the Pathfinder if it had been, say, a 1979 Chevette with 90,000 miles on the odometer.

Assistant State's Attorney Barton F. Walker III, the task force coordinator, scoffed, saying that if drugs are found in any car at any time, the task force will seize the car under the state's forfeiture law.

"I find that hard to believe," the judge responded.

Dominic J. Fleming, Mr. Rotolante's lawyer, found it hard to believe, too. He argued that seizure of the $22,000 vehicle was excessive punishment for possession of microscopic quantities of marijuana residue.

"I think the judge pointed out that the state has an awful lot of power to seize people's property," Mr. Fleming said Friday. "He is telling the state to follow the law when it exercises that power."

Mr. Walker said he probably will not appeal Judge Burns' decision and expects soon to return the Pathfinder -- which has been in the task force's custody since April.

"The judge felt as he felt, and he addressed some of his concerns," Mr. Walker said. "I don't agree with him, but this was a technical decision."

In the forfeiture complaints filed in Carroll Circuit Court in the past 18 months, the oaths and affirmations saying the property meets the criteria for forfeiture often bear the stamped signature of Mr. Hickman, who, as Carroll state's attorney, is on the board of directors that oversees the task force.

Also in those complaints -- as in Mr. Rotolante's case -- are notices from Westminster Police Chief Sam R. Leppo to Mr. Hickman that request the forfeiture. Those notices, too, are form letter requests that sometimes bear Chief Leppo's stamped signature.

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