Few seized vehicles are forfeited, sold Most cars police take in drug arrests are returned to owners

July 17, 1998|By Tanya Jones | Tanya Jones,SUN STAFF

While the Anne Arundel County Police Department has

revised its policy on seizing vehicles in some drug cases, few of the cars police seized were ever formally forfeited and sold at auction.

Of 534 cars seized last year, 414 were returned to the owners -- or loan holders -- before forfeiture proceedings, according to numbers from the state's attorney's office. This year, of more than 700 cars seized, police have recommended forfeiture in only 94 cases, according to the Police Department. Forfeiture is a civil proceeding in which a judge orders owners to give up the cars permanently and they are sold at auction.

In the remaining cases, owners paid a $250 towing and storage fee and drove home.

But the low forfeiture numbers do not mean the cars are seized in vain, according to law enforcement officials.

Of the cars seized last year, 237 were returned to owners on condition that they seek drug treatment or not allow their children to use the car, or under some other restriction, according to Kristin Riggin, spokeswoman for the state's attorney's office.

In a memo to officers Tuesday, Police Chief Larry W. Tolliver ordered them to stop seizing cars, trucks and other vehicles in simple drug possession arrests.

That policy is a change from the zero tolerance for drug trafficking Tolliver introduced last year, when he ordered police to seize vehicles for any drug violation, not just suspected sales or distribution of drugs.

Tolliver said zero tolerance is still in effect, to the extent allowed by law.

"What I was doing before was following the law, and that's what I'm doing now," Tolliver said yesterday. "The law makes it more restrictive."

County Executive John G. Gary said the new policy is more in line with how he wants seizures handled, though he supports Tolliver's aggressive anti-drug approach, especially in going after street-level dealers, not just major dealers.

Under Tolliver, who was appointed in January last year, the Police Department has taken drugs worth more than $7.5 million off the streets, more than police confiscated in the previous five years, Gary said.

According to David A. Plymyer, deputy county attorney, the review of court decisions that led to the policy revision was part of an overall review of the drug asset seizure and forfeiture

program the county began early this year. Until then, the state's attorney's office had controlled the vehicles from the time they were seized until they were released or sold.

A report by the county auditor in December had found that 114 vehicles had been forfeited last year without the chief's signature, as required by state code.

Since the audit, Tolliver has exercised more control over seized vehicles, having department officials review each seizure and signing each request for forfeiture himself.

In cases where people are arrested for simple possession and officers do not seize their cars, a towing contractor will take the cars to private lots where owners can pay to get them back. With the owners' permission, cars will be turned over to a passenger or someone who is not being arrested, according to Officer Carol Frye, a police spokeswoman.

Pub Date: 7/17/98

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