Officials to halt buybacks of confiscated property Using forfeiture suits will hit drug dealers harder, Barnes says

October 06, 1995|By AMY L. MILLER | AMY L. MILLER,SUN STAFF

Carroll County officials no longer will negotiate buyback agreements with people whose property has been seized during drug arrests, county State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes said yesterday. Instead, the state's attorney'sback is an easy way out for a drug dealer," Mr. Barnes said, referring to the practice of allowing people arrested on drug charges to purchase seized property back from police or prosecutors rather than going through the civil forfeiture process.

Formal forfeiture cases, in which both sides argue before a judge whether the property should have been seized, usually take between six months and a year to resolve, he said.

"This is a more harsh and aggressive approach to drug dealers," Mr. Barnes said, adding that forfeiture statutes were passed to punish drug dealers by taking away the vehicles they used to push narcotics.

"By giving it back, you are not really punishing the drug dealer," he said.

Not surprisingly, yesterday's announcement -- a decision Mr. Barnes said was made after several months of study -- was hailed by some county attorneys and law enforcement officials and derided by others.

Despite Mr. Barnes' assertion that the new policy would be more harsh on drug dealers, at least one local defense attorney applauded the elimination of what she called unfair buybacks.

"Obviously, I'm very glad he's doing that," said Judith S. Stainbrook, a Westminster attorney pursuing a class action lawsuit on behalf of several Carroll County residents whose property was seized by the now-defunct Carroll County Narcotics Task Force.

"I believe that it's inherently unfair because people are in an unequal position -- the government already has your property without an impartial individual having said they can take it.

"I think that it's the right thing to do. There isn't anything in the forfeiture statute that allows for buyback agreements."

The task force -- a cooperative drug-enforcement effort between several county law enforcement agencies and state police -- was dissolved this year when the Westminster city police force and the county Sheriff's Department pulled out of the group.

On the other hand, former State's Attorney Thomas E. Hickman said Mr. Barnes has lost an effective drug enforcement tool by refusing to participate in buyback agreements.

Drug dealers "will often buy a vehicle with little money down and XTC make big payments on it," Mr. Hickman said, noting that in such cases, if the state's attorney's office obtains the car through forfeiture, it must pay off the rest of the loan to keep it.

"No government will do that," he said. "The buyback offered a way of getting some money out of the drug dealer, who can afford these outrageous vehicles. The government will get something out of it, and it is a penalty to the drug dealer."

Mr. Hickman -- under whose administration buyback agreements were frequently worked out with those arrested on drug charges -- said that often relatives of those whose property he seized would stop him on the street to thank him.

"Young people are very short-sighted and don't realize the long-term implications of a criminal record," Mr. Hickman said. "But to take that vehicle from them and put them walking had a tremendous impact.

"Parents would tell me that their child doesn't do drugs anymore, doesn't hang around with people who do drugs anymore because that vehicle meant everything to them."

But Mr. Barnes said the criticism buybacks generated from defense lawyers, civil liberties groups, a county commissioner and a Carroll County Circuit judge, however, is another reason the current state's attorney's office will no longer make those agreements.

Since Mr. Barnes took office in January, nine vehicles have been seized, said Assistant State's Attorney Theresa Adams. Of those, two were forfeited by default and two were returned through buyback agreements, both of which were approved by Carroll County Circuit judges, she said.

A third buyback agreement is awaiting approval from a Circuit Court judge. In the case of each piece of property seized, the person arrested was charged with a felony drug violation and was the owner of the vehicle, Ms. Adams said.

"The public in general, because of what has gone on in the past, has a great deal of suspicion about the buyback program in general," Mr. Barnes said.

"Now, there will be no question to the legitimacy or propriety of seizing the vehicle."

The new policy will not affect any property seized by Maryland State Police, because all the agency's forfeiture cases are handled by the state attorney general's office, Mr. Barnes said.

McKelvin said, however, that assistant attorneys general assigned to the state police have never participated in buyback agreements.

"If we property, the only way they get it back is through court order or if we're told that we must release it," he said. "That has always been our policy."

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