Sorry Standard For Seizing Property

Anne Arundel's Drug War: Public Support Is No Excuse To Violate Fundamental Liberties.

April 28, 1997

LAUGHABLE IS the best way to describe the Anne Arundel County Police Department's justification of its on-going practice of seizing cars and money in cases involving minor drug offenses. Police Chief Larry Tolliver can't show that this policy is reducing drug use. Instead, he defends it on the grounds that the public is behind him, demonstrated by applause he receives at community meetings.

If public support is the standard for implementing oppressive government policies, we might as well toss out the Bill of Rights.

The chief says he receives ovations from public groups and dozens of supportive telephone calls when he brings up the subject of seizures. Public approval doesn't make it right, however. History is full of tyrants who loved to cite widespread support for their practices.

Assistant State's Attorney Trevor Kiessling, the prosecutor who handles the property forfeiture cases, admits that the current policy has resulted in property being confiscated from innocent people.

"When I weigh the innocent owners' needs against society's needs, I don't have a problem with the person being put out for a period of time," he says. His justification troubled the country's founding fathers enough to make the Bill of Rights an integral part of the United States Constitution.

The document's Fourth Amendment makes it very clear that the government has a heavy burden to justify the search and seizure of a citizen's property.

When county police confiscated $322 from Steve Fogler in February, they relied solely on the word of a "confidential informant" who said there was marijuana in his truck. Police stopped the teen-ager, searched him and his friends and the truck. The police did not find marijuana, but found a roll of cash hidden in the fuse box. The police took the money, claiming that it was to be used in a drug transaction. Hiding a large sum of cash in a fuse box may be suspicious, but it is not a violation of law.

Neither popular support nor society's needs justify confiscating money from people who have not been found guilty of a crime. If unverified tips are now the basis for seizing property, we are all in danger of losing our cars -- and our fundamental rights.

Pub Date: 4/28/97

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