Getting to the point in the fight on drugs


July 19, 1998|By Brian Sullam

SEIZING VEHICLES was never an effective method for fighting drugs.

Police Chief Larry W. Tolliver could have found that out by asking his own officers, many of whom thought this aspect of his much-publicized "zero tolerance" policy was wrong but were afraid to voice their opinions for fear of retribution.

Many men and women in his department agreed with the chief's decision when he took over the department in January 1997 to target enforcement efforts on drug trafficking.

What they questioned was whether seizing vehicles of people with a joint on the dashboard or a seed in the ashtray was the most effective method for curbing the distribution and sale of narcotics in the county.

What's more, the chief's obsession with vehicle seizures began to distort how police did their jobs. The number of vehicles seized became the measure of how effective officers were in carrying out their jobs not the number of drug arrests and convictions.

The result was that officers on patrol used every possible opportunity to stop cars and search their interiors.

"There was no purpose behind this. All we were doing was taking cars," said one commander, who called last week but would not identify himself.

He also said many of his fellow commanders agreed that the vehicle seizure policy had reached a point where the the sole goal was to rack up large numbers to please the chief.

The chief got his high numbers, but very few of these cars were forfeited.

In the past year, nearly 90 percent of the more than 700 cars that were seized were ultimately returned to their owners. The state's attorney's office determined that many of the forfeiture cases involved cars that the owner wasn't driving or cases that would not hold up in court.

In terms of reducing drug use or trafficking, measures such the wholesale confiscation of automobiles was ineffective.

However, efficacy wasn't behind a recent change in policy.

Deputy County Attorney David Plymyer had noticed that state appellate courts were overturning forfeiture cases in which the seized car was not an integral part of the crime.

The courts determined that any seizure had to pass an "instrumentality test." This meant that the car had to have been used to transport drugs for sale.

Under the new guidelines, police will still seize vehicles, but the mere presence of drugs or drug paraphernalia in a car is not sufficient reason for confiscating it.

This is the precisely the kind of policy the police should have been following for the past year and a half.

Whatever disagreements I may have had with the old seizure policy, I always believed that Chief Tolliver's "zero tolerance" for drugs was entirely appropriate.

Drugs are often at the root of criminal activity in a community. It's a safe bet that drug use is responsible for most of Anne Arundel's larcenies, burglaries and car break-ins. Drug addiction probably is also responsible for a good proportion of the county's prostitution.

Thus, Chief Tolliver's quest to reduce drug crime should also reduce the county's overall crime level.

Drugs are also destructive to individuals. Everyone knows of people whose lives have been ruined because they were addicted to heroin or crack.

Attacking the distributors and dealers who peddle these poisons is what all of us want the Police Department to do.

Anne Arundel's police face a incredibly difficult problem. After decades of fighting the drug wars, we still don't know how to curb drug use effectively, particularly among teens and young adults.

These are the people who keep drug dealers in business.

If there were no customers, drug trafficking would be a shrinking business.

Unfortunately, Baltimore is the source of most of the county's drugs. County residents can travel to any number of street corners where the drug business is flourishing.

Nevertheless, as terrible as drug use may be, we do live in a society in which the means -- such as due process -- are as important as the ends.

Our Constitution protects us against certain government intrusions no matter how well intentioned. The circumstances under which police can take property are limited.

Grabbing cars from these people overstepped the limits, as Maryland's courts are ruling. The courts make it very clear that if police confiscate vehicles they cannot do it for punitive reasons. If the police seize cars and trucks, they must be able to demonstrate that the vehicles played a role in the crime.

This change in guidelines doesn't prevent police from arresting and charging people who are caught with small amounts of drugs. Now their cars won't be automatically seized.

The enforcement emphasis will return to drug arrests rather than car confiscations.

That's always been the right way to fight drugs in Anne Arundel.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 7/15/98

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