Car wars Anne Arundel County: Behind-the-scenes legal scuffle over seized vehicles goes public.

October 06, 1997

DETERMINING WHY the offices of the Anne Arundel County attorney and the state's attorney are at war over a drug asset forfeiture program is impossible at the moment. Allegations of mismanagement, bad faith and lying are flying between the offices, and there will be more to come.

This bureaucratic scuffle has been going on for a month out of public view. It is not just about which office can do a better job of managing and disposing of seized assets.

Ironically, county Police Chief Larry Tolliver and State's Attorney Frank Weathersbee are equally enthusiastic about the dubious practice of seizing cars from people who are caught with small amounts of drugs.

In fact, Mr. Weathersbee welcomed Chief Tolliver's "zero-tolerance" policy that has been in place since February and has resulted in the seizure of at least one car a day in the county. In seven months, police have impounded nearly 300 cars, compared to about 170 for all of 1996.

The source of the conflict apparently is a dispute over procedure. The county attorney's office is not responsible for prosecuting crimes but for providing legal advice and service to county agencies. It contends that the state's attorney has improperly filed affidavits on behalf of the police chief and improperly disposed of county assets, including a 1991 Toyota Corolla.

That car was sold cheap by an assistant state's attorney to 20-year-old Tavon Johnson, whose adoption of his younger brother after they were left by their heroin-addicted mother gained some national attention as a beacon of personal responsibility amid a drug culture.

Instead of meeting with the state's attorney to straighten out the differences, County Attorney Phillip Scheibe unilaterally announced his office would handle future forfeitures and conduct future auctions. He also called in the Maryland state prosecutor, whose job is to investigate government corruption. Mr. Weathersbee responded by claiming that politics was at the heart of the allegations.

Lest one think this has slowed the seizure business, Anne Arundel police continue to take automobiles with no discernible effect on drug usage. Instead of fighting over control of the forfeiture unit, perhaps all those involved ought to re-examine whether this policy of seizing cars for minor drug offenses makes sense at all.

Pub Date: 10/06/97

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