Narcotics task force to lose independence

August 22, 1994|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Sun Staff Writer

Eighteen months ago, the Carroll County Narcotics Task Force was a quiet, rarely scrutinized operation that set its own agenda, controlled its own budget and raised practically all its own money without any interference -- or oversight -- from county government.

But that was before the county commissioners set out to audit the drug group.

Now, with the release of the much-delayed audit report late last week, this much about the once almost brazenly independent law enforcement unit is clear: The days of independence are over.

The cooperative venture by the state police, the state's attorney, the sheriff and Westminster police no longer will have independent control over its budget.

The group no longer will seize property allegedly used in the drug trade without county involvement.

And the group no longer will be able to operate without an annual financial audit.

About the only aspect of the task force's operations that won't change is the way the group goes about raising money -- the so-called buyback program under which owners of seized property can pay fees of hundreds or thousands of dollars to redeem their property without having to go to court. The buyback price is routinely less than market value.

As the audit points out, the task force raised almost all its operating budget from February 1993 to February 1994 through buybacks. Forty-nine such agreements were executed, bringing more than $45,000 into task force coffers.

The audit didn't raise any questions about how the money was accounted for, but it did call for a written policy governing buybacks, a notion scoffed at by State's Attorney Thomas E. Hickman.

In his formal response to the audit, Mr. Hickman said a written policy would be too rigid to be useful, because buybacks are nothing more than the settlement of civil lawsuits.

"This process is used all of the time all over the United States," Mr. Hickman said Friday in a telephone interview. "We're not doing anything different here."

Buybacks are a common weapon in law enforcement's arsenal in the war on drugs. But -- as county auditors pointed out in interviews last week -- Carroll's task force seems to rely on them more than other area jurisdictions.

There also is one key difference in how buybacks are consummated in Carroll as compared with the rest of Maryland -- here, buybacks are initiated before the filing of a civil lawsuit.

Property can be seized by police even if the owner is not charged with a crime. Under the state's forfeiture law, property -- a car, cash, a house or business -- can be taken if an officer believes it is used in drug trade or if it was bought with proceeds from drug sales.

According to the county auditors -- as well as testimony at a special House of Delegates committee meeting Tuesday -- Carroll is unique in its initiation of buyback negotiations before the filing of a lawsuit.

By engaging in negotiations before a suit is filed, the task force avoids any judicial oversight.

Richard Finci, a Montgomery County lawyer with the Maryland Criminal Defense Attorneys Association, called buybacks a sort of "forfeiture-extortion," but he admitted at the House committee meeting that buybacks are a "sure-fire winner" for both the state and the property owner. The state gets revenue, and the owner gets the property back.

The attorney general's office also engages in buybacks, but only after the filing of a forfeiture suit, Betty Sconion, an assistant attorney general, testified at Tuesday's hearing.

In the past fiscal year, she testified, the state seized nearly $3.7 million worth of drug-related property. The attorney general's office turned over less than $200,000 to the state's general fund, she said; most of the property had been returned to its owners through buybacks at less than market value.

Some critics have argued that the whole forfeiture process is a sure-fire winner -- for law enforcement agencies. Many times, property is seized, but criminal charges are not filed.

In Carroll, it is impossible to see how many of the 49 buyback agreements had related criminal cases. Carroll task force officials have refused to divulge the buyback agreements, citing confidentiality.

Mr. Hickman brushes aside critics of the buyback process because, he said, it is a deterrent.

"I've had people stop me on the streets and thank me for seizing their child's car," he said Friday. He said the seizing of a teen's car -- "probably the most important thing in his life at that point" -- drives home the message about drug abuse.

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