To the critics of Carroll's drug task force, the case of Matthew Rotolante's Nissan Pathfinder symbolized all that was wrong with the narcotics enforcement group.
The $22,000 truck -- which the Gettysburg College student owned free and clear -- was seized last year by the task force after a traffic stop in which a trooper found a microscopic quantity of marijuana in Mr. Rotolante's socks.
Among those who find such a case unacceptable: Jerry F. Barnes, the incoming Carroll state's attorney. "That isn't going to happen. We're going to focus on felony cases, and use the forfeiture law the way it was intended," said Mr. Barnes, who, until Friday was head of Frederick County's drug task force. "I don't think we'd go after a car for marijuana residue."
In interviews this month, the new prosecutor -- who trounced five-term incumbent Thomas E. Hickman in November -- has outlined ways in which he hopes to change the Carroll County Narcotics Task Force.
Among them is the cessation of Mr. Hickman's longtime practice of seizing property that is related in any way -- no matter how remotely -- to the use or sale of drugs.
Not that Mr. Barnes is abandoning Carroll's zero-tolerance drug stance. "We're not going soft on drugs. But we have to use the laws out there wisely and fairly."
A case like Mr. Rotolante's does nothing to halt the drug trade, he said. Indeed, the misdemeanor criminal charges lodged against Mr. Rotolante were placed on the inactive docket, and, in ruling sharply critical of the task force's forfeiture policy, a Carroll judge ordered the drug group to return the vehicle.
For more than two years, the task force -- which includes officers from the state police, the sheriff's department and the Westminster police -- has been criticized by civil libertarians, defense lawyers, appellate judges and the county commissioners.
And, while a prolonged county audit of the group -- done over the objections of Mr. Hickman and Barton F. Walker III, the assistant state's attorney who heads the task force -- turned up no financial improprieties, it brought to an end the autonomy the drug group had enjoyed since its beginning.
To bring what he calls respect back to the drug group, Mr. Barnes said, he is prepared to overhaul the way it is run.
"We need to get in there, reconstruct all of those files, and rectify any problems," Mr. Barnes said.
He doesn't intend to change the jobs of the officers on the squad -- in fact, he had praise for the "cops who do the work."
But in several significant ways, he will alter the status quo:
* Asset forfeiture -- a civil procedure -- will be separated from the criminal prosecution and handled by different attorneys.
When the two areas overlap -- as in asset buybacks, where owners of seized property are offered a cash settlement before a forfeiture suit is filed -- it can give the appearance of a conflict, Mr. Barnes said.
* The financial records -- including forfeiture and buyback records -- will mostly be open for public inspection.
In the past, Mr. Walker has refused to allow the public to see buy back receipts and some forfeiture agreements because doing so, he said, would compromise the investigative power of the task force. He likened such records to a client's confidential correspondence with an attorney.
* The drug group will undergo at least one yearly audit, and will be accountable to the county government for its operating budget.
This change already has occurred as a result of the county's audit, completed this summer.
* The assistant state's attorney who works most closely with the drug group -- advising its members on search warrants, charging documents and evidence -- will not go out on most raids, as is the practice now.
"We don't need an attorney to act like a cop," Mr. Barnes said. "There'll be no cowboys here."
Mr. Walker, who said he is proud of the group's accomplishments in the nearly four years he has headed it, admits that any organization can benefit from changes. But he cautioned that wholesale change "for the sake of politics" is imprudent.
"They're there to serve the community, but it is not always the issue of giving the community what they want," Mr. Walker said. "It's a law enforcement group, and the focus always has to be on law enforcement, not politics."
Mr. Barnes takes over as state's attorney Jan. 3. He hopes to institute the changes "as soon as possible."