Lesson of the Emory house Forfeiture law: Burden of proof in this case should extend to car seizures.

March 03, 1998

BOTH SIDES CLAIMED victory in the forfeiture case involving the large water-view house of Patricia Emory, former principal of Severna Park Elementary and current administrator for Anne Arundel County schools.

The obvious winner is Ms. Emory, who keeps her Pasadena house -- albeit at a cost of $49,300 -- and forced Anne Arundel County to follow the basic legal precept that the burden of proof rests on the government.

Ms. Emory and her husband, James Mitchell Emory, had been accused in 1992 of being drug kingpins. They were charged with running the county's largest drug ring, importing hundreds of pounds of marijuana in the early 1990s.

Her husband was found guilty and is serving a 15-year prison sentence. Charges against Ms. Emory were dropped, but the state's attorney's office sought to seize the family house under drug-case forfeiture laws.

State law allows the government wide latitude to seize property involved in the drug trade, but county prosecutors lacked the proof that ill-gotten gains paid for the Emory abode. Because the house was completed in 1989, two years before the period for which James Emory had been convicted of selling drugs, the state would have had difficulty proving drug profits were used to buy the house.

When the police raided the house Oct. 29, 1992, they found no drugs at the house but a briefcase with $12,500. The police did find large amounts of drugs in storage lockers.

Ms. Emory maintained that she was unaware of her husband's drug business and should not have to forfeit the family house, valued at about $450,000. By settling, it certainly appears that county prosecutors feared a jury might agree with her. Under the settlement, the county will keep the cash seized at the house but return about $5,000 the county got from selling a seized family car.

Government seizure of private property is a powerful tool. The message of the Emory case is that this authority must be used appropriately. Unfortunately, the county too often has not felt compelled to meet this high standard when it takes cars in minor drug cases and shifts the burden of proof to the accused. The outcome of this case should give the county pause about its wholesale practice of auto seizures.

Pub Date: 3/03/98

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