Task Force Snares Whoever Gets Close

COMMENT

March 13, 1994|By BRIAN SULLAM

Carroll County's Narcotics Task Force has become a political tar baby.

Anyone who gets near it gets covered with goo, and Westminster's Mayor W. Benjamin Brown is the latest victim. In his effort to develop oversight of the task force, Mr. Brown convened a secret council meeting two weeks ago in violation of the state's open meetings law.

Instead of reaping political brownie points for his effort, Mr. Brown now finds that his initiative has backfired. Some members of the Westminster City Council are angry that he dragged them into the closed session, and the mayor now has to repair that political damage. Although it is hard to gauge the way the public has reacted, the continuing controversy swirling around the task force invariably will affect Mr. Brown's campaign for a county commissioner's seat.

This political backlash from the task force is ironic. Most politicians find police organizations to be political assets. Elected officials and challengers like to identify closely with the police because they represent the forces of order in society, protecting the public from the criminal element. Why else is a phalanx of uniformed police officers the favorite backdrop for politicians staging photo opportunities?

Members of the task force come from the state police, county sheriff's office and the Westminster city police force -- all of which enjoy fairly good public images. However, good reputations do not carry over to the task force.

The task force's current problems arise not out of its police work but from the way it has used the state's forfeiture law. All too often, members of the task force have skirted the Constitution in their zeal to claim property owned by drug suspects.

Cleaning up its current forfeiture practices is not enough to reverse the task force's fortunes. Any effort to improve its image must get to the root of the problem: the way the task force uses forfeited property to finance its operations and the lack of effective auditor oversight.

At present, the various police departments pay the salaries of the personnel assigned to the task force, but all equipment and other purchases are paid for with forfeited property.

Admittedly, there is considerable poetic justice in having the sale of cars, jewelry and cash recovered from drug dealers finance the investigation and apprehension of other drug dealers. But it is not good public policy.

The task force has not even been able to decide under which governmental authority to seize property. At first, the task force seized in the name of the state of Maryland, but stopped that practice once it was pointed out that all proceeds from those forfeitures had to be deposited in the state's general fund.

Then the task force began seizing in the name of Carroll County, but that created problems because it gave the commissioners the right to see what was happening to the money seized in their names.

The latest ploy has been to use the City of Westminster as the forfeiting agency. Whether the task force continues to do this depends on whether some defense attorney challenges Westminster's authority to take property in Finksburg or Manchester.

But there is a more fundamental problem. Too much of the time and energy of the task force is devoted to recovering property. Without forfeitures, there is no money to purchase exotic radios, weapons and other goodies. Instead of using forfeiture as a means of depriving big-time drug dealers of their ill-gotten gains, the task force has focused on seizing whatever property it can from small-time users and sellers to finance its operations.

The result is the series of automobile seizures by the task force that only serve to tarnish its image.

The task force's practice of using "buybacks" -- confiscating automobiles and negotiating their return for a price -- has destroyed its reputation. Rather than appearing as a professional law enforcement agency, members of the task force resemble merchants in a Middle Eastern bazaar haggling over the value of seized property.

The task force has seized an automobile from one owner whose daughter was caught with drugs while driving the car. There was never any indication that the mother used drugs but, nevertheless, the task force confiscated her car.

In an equally bizarre case, an 18-year-old was able to ransom her car minutes after her arrest by agreeing to turn over the $487 of cash she had in her purse. The police never placed any criminal charges against her. Her companion was acquitted of drug possession charges.

The seizing of a $22,000 four-wheel vehicle from a college kid who had a microscopic amount of marijuana ash in a pipe is yet another outlandish example the lengths the task force has gone to seize property. What made this case even more incredible is that while the task force was attempting to keep the car, it was dropping criminal charges against the defendant.

Establishing a committee to oversee task force operations, as Mr. Brown wanted, is not enough -- if such a committee endorses the task force's existing forfeiture practices.

These property seizures are discrediting the county's entire drug enforcement effort. County officials who think there is political capital to be realized by providing political cover for the drug task force will quickly find themselves sullied by the task force's questionable practices.

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

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