Finally, sensible car seizures Zero tolerance: Chief Tolliver decides that not every drug case should result in confiscation.

July 20, 1998

COUNTY Police Chief Larry W. Tolliver made the right decision to separate vehicle seizures from his "zero tolerance" policy on drugs. There is nothing wrong with his get-tough policy on all forms of drug trafficking and possession. There was something fundamentally wrong, though, with Chief Tolliver's policy requiring officers to seize vehicles whenever they discovered drugs in a car, regardless of the amount.

After 18 months, it is clear that fighting drugs by confiscating jTC cars isn't effective. Nearly 90 percent of the more than 1,200 cars seized were returned to their owners. Only a minority of the cases went to forfeiture, a civil proceeding where the government takes possession of the vehicle. Prosecutors admit that most forfeiture cases involved dilapidated vehicles the owners didn't care about.

The chief's insistence that his officers seize cars began to distort the way they performed their jobs. Those officers who had high numbers of seizures were considered effective, though the underlying criminal cases were weak and often never prosecuted. Moreover, police began to stop and search cars arbitrarily. Seizing cars became the end in and of itself -- not fighting drugs.

Police departments that single-mindedly seize cars can encourage corruption. A number of questionable transactions have arisen out of the sale and buyback of confiscated cars in Carroll and Wicomico counties. Also, law enforcement agencies too often engage in demeaning squabbles over the proceeds of the forfeitures.

Defenders of the chief's aggressive confiscation policy will argue that half these cars were returned with conditions. Most of the stipulations prohibited family members who had been caught with drugs from driving the returned cars.

The disposition of these cases did not address the ostensible goal of the program: curbing drug use. Only in a few cases -- where drug treatment was a condition for getting the car back -- did the seizure result in reducing the sale and use of drugs in the county.

Pub Date: 7/20/98

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