Prosecutors doubt seizure of car legal Sheriff's confiscation in drug case is outside guidelines, they say

Barnes not consulted

Rules allow taking of property in felony distribution arrests

November 01, 1995|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,SUN STAFF

Sheriff John H. Brown's Drug Strike Force touted the seizure last weekend of a Nissan Pathfinder whose owner is accused of having less than 4 grams of crack cocaine.

The problem, Carroll County prosecutors say, is that the car probably will never be forfeited and probably will be returned to its owner because the confiscation falls outside state and county guidelines for taking property from people suspected of involvement in the drug trade.

"At no time was [Carroll State's Attorney] Jerry Barnes consulted regarding any seizure, nor did he render an opinion on it," Deputy State's Attorney Marcie S. Wogan said yesterday.

Ms. Wogan added that all asset forfeiture cases generated by the sheriff's department are reviewed and handled by the state's attorney's office.

Applying Mr. Barnes' newly implemented asset forfeiture guidelines -- which say that seizure is appropriate only in felony drug distribution cases -- would render the seizure of William A. Chenoweth III's 1988 sport utility vehicle early Saturday morning inappropriate.

Sheriff Brown could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Ms. Wogan, who would not speculate on the specifics of Mr. Chenoweth's case, said her office's position on drug forfeiture is clear and that any case not fitting Mr. Barnes' guidelines would not proceed.

"Our office will ultimately review this case, and we will determine if it's a fit," Ms. Wogan said.

She said her office would study a recent decision by the state's highest court that severely curtailed the seizure of cars, cash, boats and houses by drug enforcers.

In that case, in which a Southern Maryland farm was seized when 2.5 pounds of marijuana was found, the Court of Appeals said laws allowing prosecutors to confiscate a drug dealer's property are not a license to take anything they want.

Forfeitures must not be disproportionate to the severity of the crime, the court ruled unanimously in September.

The events leading to the seizure of the Pathfinder by the strike force -- a four-deputy operation formed this summer by Sheriff Brown -- are reminiscent of the the defunct Carroll County Narcotics Task Force.

Acting on an anonymous tip, members of the strike force followed a man from Hampstead to Baltimore.

According to District Court charging documents, once the man stopped his car in the Park Heights area of Northwest Baltimore, a man approached, left, then came back to the car.

Officers followed the man back to Carroll County and stopped him once they crossed the county line in Eldersburg, the documents said.

The man was asked to leave his car. After a drug-sniffing dog reacted, officers searched the car and the man. They said they seized about 4 grams of crack cocaine, cocaine residue, paraphernalia and $876.

Mr. Chenoweth, 33, of Hampstead was charged with cocaine possession, possession of cocaine with the intent to distribute and maintaining a common nuisance. He was released on $2,500 unsecured bond. No trial date has been set.

Mr. Chenoweth declined to comment on the case yesterday.

Such arrests and asset seizures have come under fire in recent years from judges, defense attorneys and civil libertarians.

It was a 1993 case involving a Nissan Pathfinder that prompted Carroll Circuit Judge Luke K. Burns Jr. to criticize the forfeiture of vehicles when a small amount of drugs was involved.

Gettysburg College student Matthew Rotolante's $22,000 Pathfinder was seized by the drug task force after a traffic stop. A microscopic amount of marijuana was found in the vehicle.

Judge Burns, in dismissing the forfeiture case on a technicality, nonetheless warned the task force of the inappropriateness of seizing property marginally tied to the drug trade.

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