Seize the seizure law Forfeitures: Legislature gave police too much power to take cars in misdemeanor drug cases.

June 09, 1998

THE TOWN of Salisbury, like other jurisdictions in Maryland, has discovered that seizing cars from people who possess small amounts of drugs is a law enforcement tool that often backfires on police. Wherever vehicle seizures have been pursued aggressively under this law, questionable police behavior seems to follow.

Salisbury Police Chief Coulbourn Dykes was suspended recently over possible irregularities in his selling of seized vehicles on behalf of the Wicomico County Narcotics Task Force. Cars worth thousands of dollars were sold for several hundred dollars. A $15,000 Harley-Davidson motorcycle was sold for $3,500, though a potential buyer offered $10,000. Moreover, prices paid for at least three dozen cars, including a 1988 Mercedes, were never recorded.

In Carroll County, a narcotics task force several years ago engaged in the questionable practice of seizing cars and then allowing defendants to buy them back on the spot. None of the officers was alleged to have pocketed the money, but the potential for abuse was great. The task force also specifically targeted vehicles with the highest resale potential, such as the sports utility vehicle driven by a youth who was caught with a pipe containing trace amounts of marijuana.

In Anne Arundel County, where police are seizing cars at a rate of more than one a day, drug trafficking and abuse continue unabated.

Confiscating cars in Carroll apparently had no effect in scaring users off drugs; witness the heroin infiltration there. Moreover, police don't seize cars as forfeited property when they make stops for drunken driving or other similar crimes.

Seizing cars should be reserved for those cases when owners used illegal profits to buy them or used the vehicles in the drug trade.

In their zeal to win the war on drugs, state legislators in the early 1980s gave police powers that often get the police themselves into trouble. It is time to repeal the seizure law for misdemeanor drug cases.

Pub Date: 6/09/98

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