High court upholds Md. ruling restricting property seizures Prosecutors' powers in drug cases limited

February 21, 1996|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A Maryland court ruling that narrows the power of state and local prosecutors to use property seizures as extra punishment for drug criminals withstood a challenge yesterday in the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a brief order, the justices refused to review a plea by state officials and Somerset County prosecutors that the Maryland Court of Appeals had gone too far in September in curbing forfeitures in drug cases.

The court's action cleared the way for a civil trial, probably beginning in the fall, on whether the 4-acre farm of George Joseph Aravanis on Shelltown Road in Westover may be seized by the Somerset County state's attorney under the new standards set by the Maryland ruling.

Mr. Aravanis pleaded guilty in January 1992 to illegal possession of 2 1/2 pounds of marijuana, an amount sufficient to show he planned to distribute it. He was sentenced to five years in prison, with 3 1/2 years suspended, and was freed after serving his sentence.

After his conviction, prosecutors went after the farm, contending that it was used in the illegal marijuana operation and so should be forfeited.

The Maryland Court of Appeals, saying it was basing its ruling solely on Maryland's Constitution, used the Aravanis case as the vehicle for declaring that property forfeitures are a form of criminal fine and thus may not be enforced if they are excessive.

The appeals court laid down a series of benchmarks -- including the seriousness of the drug crime, and the link between the crime and the property -- that lower courts are to consider in judging whether a forfeiture is valid. It ordered the Somerset County Circuit Court to apply that formula in the Aravanis case.

Challenging that ruling in the appeal to the Supreme Court, Maryland officials and county prosecutors said the Court of Appeals based its ruling on the U.S. Constitution, not Maryland's, and that it thus was subject to review by the justices.

The justices gave no explanation for turning aside the appeal.

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