Westminster woman sues over drug group seizures

June 01, 1995|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Sun Staff Writer

A Westminster homemaker whose complaints against Carroll County's drug task force raised concerns about its seizure practices is suing the group's former leaders for more than $80,000.

Marie S. Boyd had to pay the Carroll County Narcotics Task Force $2,000 to buy back her car -- which contained less than an ounce of cocaine that belonged to her daughter, Diane L. Wisner -- after the vehicle was seized by police three years ago.

In a six-count suit filed late Tuesday in Carroll Circuit Court, Mrs. Boyd claims that at least two members of the task force lied to her about her options after she and her daughter were stopped.

She claims then-State's Attorney Thomas E. Hickman and Assistant State's Attorney Barton F. Walker III allowed the task force to circumvent state asset forfeiture laws.

"I was appalled at what it was like when we were going through it," said Judith S. Stainbrook, the Westminster attorney who represents Mrs. Boyd and who defended Wisner in two cocaine distribution cases in recent years. "The message they would send is that we'll strip you of everything you've got and everything from everyone you know."

Mr. Hickman, now a personal-injury lawyer in Westminster, said yesterday he had not seen the suit, but he brushed aside criticism of the way the task force seized vehicles suspected of involvement in the drug trade.

"We did everything by the book," he said. "We followed the law. We had no reason not to."

Attempts to reach Mr. Walker -- who is no longer with the prosecutor's office -- were unsuccessful yesterday.

The only connection between Mrs. Boyd's car and the drug trade was that Wisner had stashed a small package of cocaine in the back, according to the lawsuit and confidential task force documents obtained by The Sun.

The two were driving home from a Westminster grocery store May 29, 1992, when the car was stopped by task force officers. Wisner admitted that the drugs were hers, but the task force officers took Mrs. Boyd in for questioning and then drove her home -- and dumped her groceries in her front yard.

Tfc. Robert Heuisler, a task force officer, told Mrs. Boyd that she would never get her car back, the suit says. A day later, Mr. Walker told Mrs. Boyd that she could buy her car back for $2,000 in cash.

Trooper Heuisler, also named as a defendant in Mrs. Boyd's suit, was said to be on vacation in Canada yesterday and could not be reached for comment.

Mrs. Boyd paid the $2,000 with a certified check -- she refused to take cash -- and signed an agreement in which she promised not to sue the task force, its officers or any official connected with the case.

Wisner, now 36, was convicted of cocaine distribution charges that stemmed from the drugs found in her mother's car, and she served two years in state prison. She later was convicted of other distribution charges and, at her request, is undergoing court-ordered, inpatient drug treatment pending a judge's decision this summer on whether she will be returned to prison.

"From at least 1990 until Jan. 2, 1995, it was the pattern and practice of the Carroll County Narcotics Task Force to enter into 'buy-back' agreements with persons whose vehicles had been seized in connection with drug-related offenses," the suit says.

"Mrs. Boyd's buy-back agreement was typical . . . These buy-back agreements were entered into before the vehicles were forfeited and before it was determined whether the vehicles were in fact even subject to forfeiture."

While most Baltimore-area police departments say they use forfeiture laws primarily against big-time drug dealers, the Carroll task force under Mr. Hickman and Mr. Walker routinely targeted bit players and people such as Mrs. Boyd, the suit says.

"There's nothing in the forfeiture act that authorizes Bart Walker to act as a used car salesman," Ms. Stainbrook said yesterday. "The whole process was abhorrent."

Mrs. Boyd's case made the front pages of newspapers and became the subject of numerous television news investigations into the way forfeitures were handled by the narcotics task force. Civil libertarians, judges, defense lawyers and the Carroll County Commissioners also called for a change in the way people were being asked to buy back seized property.

Many of the task force's practices under Mr. Hickman have ended. Detective Sgt. Gary W. Coflin, the new leader of the task force, said last week the group will strictly follow Maryland law and will not return to the practices of his predecessors.

"There will be absolutely no gray area in what we do," Sergeant Coflin said.

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