Arundel revises seizure policy Cars won't be confiscated in simple drug cases

'Zero tolerance' defended

July 15, 1998|By Tanya Jones | Tanya Jones,SUN STAFF

Chief Larry W. Tolliver ordered Anne Arundel County Police yesterday to stop seizing cars in simple drug possession cases, a rollback of his popular and controversial "zero tolerance" for drug trafficking.

The move marked the first shift in a vigorous and highly publicized policy that has evoked praise from residents tired of drug activity and criticism from those who believe zero tolerance is overbearing and a threat to constitutional protections of due process.

In a written directive issued in March 1997, Tolliver told officers to seize vehicles if anyone inside had drugs or if drugs were found in the vehicle, regardless of who owned the vehicle, or whether the owner knew of the drugs.

In one case that same month, county police seized a Ford Mustang belonging to a woman whose daughter was arrested for altering prescriptions for the painkiller Percocet. The daughter was arrested while driving the car. The State's Attorney Office took two weeks to return the car to the mother, who had to pay a $250 fee.

The seizure policy -- plus added narcotics officers -- led to a dramatic jump in the number of cars, trucks and other vehicles taken from people arrested for crimes ranging from drug possession to distribution.

Since January of this year, the department has seized 772 vehicles, nearly three times the number for the same period last year.

Nearly two months ago, however, the county attorney asked Tolliver to review department policy based on two rulings by the Court of Special Appeals on forfeiture cases in other counties. Supervisors have been reviewing the policy and state law since then, and Tolliver said he agreed to the change after meeting Monday with County Attorney Philip F. Scheibe and Deputy County Attorney David A. Plymyer.

The chief downplayed the effect of the changes he ordered.

"This is not going to hamper what we're doing as far as zero tolerance," said Tolliver, who was named chief in January 1997. "If you're caught with a marijuana cigarette, you're going to be arrested, and we will continue to do that. We will not back off."

In his memo to all personnel yesterday, the chief said police should continue to seize cars used to distribute drugs or that have been bought with drug money.

"I expect that each officer will continue to ferret out those persons involved in drug activity," he wrote.

Guidelines for seizures in other cases will be provided in a few days, according to the memo.

Scheibe provided examples of how the seizure policy should now be applied.

In a case where a person is found with 1 ounce of marijuana, but has no prior drug violations and is not arrested in a known drug trafficking area, the car he or she is in probably should not be seized, Scheibe said. However, when a person is caught with 5 ounces of marijuana, thousands of dollars in cash and is in a known drug trafficking area, that car would likely be seized, he said.

After seizing a car, police usually recommend that the county State's Attorney office seek forfeiture of the car, meaning the owner would permanently lose it. If the car is not recommended for forfeiture, owners typically wait three to seven days to get the car back, according to State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee.

In a January 1997 ruling the Court of Special Appeals reversed the forfeiture of a car in a 1994 Dorchester County case in which the defendant was driving his mother's BMW when police arrested him on an outstanding warrant and found cocaine and marijuana in his pocket and more than $4,000 on him and in the car.

In a January 1998 ruling, the same court agreed with a Howard County Circuit Court ruling that forfeiture was not warranted in a 1996 case in which police found a crack pipe in a Corvette and crack and heroine in the driver's pocket.

In both cases, the court said the cars were not being used to commit a crime and, therefore, should not be forfeited.

Pub Date: 7/15/98

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