Drug force criticized in Carroll audit Ex-state's attorney defends buybacks of suspects' cars

Seizures raised funds

Policy garnered almost $50,000

October 08, 1995|By Darren M. Allen and Amy L. Miller | Darren M. Allen and Amy L. Miller,SUN STAFF

Suspects arrested on drug charges in Carroll County between September 1992 and June 1994 often had two ways out of their dilemma: go to court or buy back their cars from the authorities.

According to a county government audit of the now-defunct Carroll County Narcotics Task Force, more than 80 percent of arrested drug suspects whose cars were seized by task force officers avoided serious consequences from the criminal justice system simply by buying back their cars.

The task force, under the guidance of Thomas E. Hickman, then the state's attorney, had drawn criticism in Carroll and around Maryland for years.

Mr. Hickman was not given a copy of the audit that was released Friday by county officials, but he defended his office's record, saying the task force followed all "proper procedures."

The 42-page audit, which took nine months to prepare, strongly differs.

"It appears the previous state's attorney administration used the buyback process as a way to generate funds," the audit said.

Questions raised about the buyback policy during the past three years by civil libertarians, defense lawyers and appellate judges led State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes to seek an audit of his predecessor's practices.

Buybacks were a shortcut approach to asset forfeiture, in which police seize property that they suspect was bought with drug money or was used to bring about drug transactions. In forfeitures, prosecutors file lawsuits and appear before a judge to obtain the property.

Buybacks are different and faster. One such case illustrates how buybacks often were used in Carroll County.

Marie Boyd and her daughter, convicted cocaine dealer Diane L. Wisner, were stopped in Mrs. Boyd's car by task force members in 1992. Officers found cocaine belonging to Wisner in the car, seized the car and demanded $2,000 in cash from Mrs. Boyd to get the car back.

She paid with a certified check and took the car days later. Her case prompted a class-action lawsuit filed this year by Westminster attorney Judith S. Stainbrook.

In the lawsuit, Ms. Stainbrook said, "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."

"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."

Stuart Comstock-Gay, executive director of the Maryland American Civil Liberties Union, has been an outspoken critic of asset forfeiture.

"We find asset forfeiture is a very dangerous part of the law," he said Friday. "It encourages police officers to push the limit and try to obtain more property even when they can't prove a case.

"People who are worried about drugs would be outraged if they (( saw this audit. You're not punishing people here; the idea is to put them behind bars, not buy them off."

The county audit released last week seemed to show there was little if any correlation between buybacks and criminal cases.

Ms. Stainbrook was elated.

"Oh my God, oh my God," said the defense attorney and longtime critic of Mr. Hickman's drug task force. "That obviously shows that the forfeiture statute is purely punitive in nature, and the state's attorney was taking the punishment into his own hands. It's always a source of concern when the government insists on cash."

According to the audit, of the 64 cases involving buybacks, 11 resulted in criminal convictions, and five of those were felonies.

In the other cases, charges were dropped, or the defendants were given probation or had their cases placed on the court's inactive docket.

The audit also said that the task force kept sloppy financial records and that of 29 cars it seized and did not sell back, more than half had to be returned to their owners because of faulty legal procedures.

The task force raised almost $50,000 in less than two years through buybacks, more than twice the annual budget of the drug unit.

After reviewing the report, Mr. Barnes said Thursday that his office no longer would engage in buybacks.

"The buyback is an easy way out for a drug dealer," Mr. Barnes said. "By giving it back, you are not really punishing the drug dealer."

The task force -- which comprised officers from the Westminster Police Department, the Sheriff's Department and the state police under the direction of the state's attorney -- was dissolved in July after Sheriff John H. Brown and Westminster Police Chief Sam R. Leppo withdrew their officers from the unit.

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