No More Rubber-Stamp Seizures

February 09, 1994

If anyone needs more evidence that the Carroll County Narcotics Task Force abuses the state forfeiture law, he or she need look no further than the case of Matthew O. Rotolante's 1992 Nissan Pathfinder.

Last April, a state trooper stopped Mr. Rotolante for speeding on Route 140. The trooper noticed Mr. Rotolante had a small smoking pipe stuck in one of his boots. The trooper suspected it was a marijuana pipe and arrested Mr. Rotolante and seized his car.

No marijuana was found in the car, but a state police chemist discovered marijuana residue using a microscope to examine the pipe's ashes. Mr. Rotolante was charged with possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia.

Even though county prosecutors ultimately did not pursue Mr. Rotolante's criminal case, they went ahead with the forfeiture of his car. There is one plausible explanation: Mr. Rotolante owned his car free and clear. If the task force was able to seize the car and auction it off, the task force's budget would have received a quick infusion of about $20,000.

To seize a car, state law requires that police must meet certain standards. Seizure can take place if drugs were sold or planned to be sold from the car or if the person in the car possessed drugs and also had an extensive criminal record. Mr. Rotolante did not come close to meeting these standards. He was a college student with no criminal record. The amount of drugs in his possession was so small that state police needed a microscope to find them.

What made this case even more questionable is that the law requires a careful review of each forfeiture case before it is submitted to the courts. In Mr. Rotolante's case, there is no evidence that State's Attorney Thomas E. Hickman Jr. reviewed any of the documents because he didn't even sign the complaint. Someone in his office used a rubber stamp of his signature instead.

Circuit Court Judge Luke K. Burns Jr. recognized this case as a travesty. He wisely dismissed it. In his order, Judge Burns noted the task force did not even comply with "prerequisites giving it the power to seize" and "did not file a verified complaint as required by law." The judge's message was clear: If the task force uses its power to deprive people of property, it must obey the law.

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