Rebuked troopers cut drug searches State police admit bias suit led to big drop in I-95 seizures in '97

Rappaport raised issue

October 20, 1998|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Seizures of drugs from motorists along Interstate 95 almost ground to a halt last year primarily because of state troopers' reaction to an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit accusing the Maryland State Police of stopping drivers on the basis of their race, state police officials acknowledged yesterday.

Col. David B. Mitchell, the state police superintendent, essentially confirmed charges leveled by Republican attorney general candidate Paul H. Rappaport that drug confiscations along I-95 north of Baltimore dropped dramatically from 1995 to 1997.

Mitchell said that decline also reflected a shift by drug dealers to other methods of transporting their wares. He said that state police seizures of drugs shipped through other channels have multiplied and that confiscations along I-95 have rebounded strongly in 1998.

The record of the state police in seizing drugs took on political significance last week when Rappaport injected the issue into his campaign to oust three-term Democratic Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. Rappaport said Curran's handling of the ACLU lawsuit, which charges that troopers have unfairly targeted blacks for traffic stops and searches, was in large part the cause of the decline.

Curran and the state police disputed that assertion.

The matter was taken seriously enough that Lynne A. Battaglia, the U.S. attorney for Maryland, fired off a letter expressing concern that the fall-off in drug searches is hindering prosecution of drug kingpins.

Capt. Gregory M. Shipley, the state police spokesman, said seizures of heroin by troopers statewide during traffic stops declined from 9.1 pounds in 1995 and 4.0 pounds in 1996 to 0.2 pounds in 1997. Seizures of other drugs showed similar declines statewide: Cocaine seizures went from 136.4 pounds in 1995 and 200.6 pounds in 1996 to 4.2 pounds in 1997.

Seizures of crack cocaine fell from 50.0 pounds in 1995 and 64.3 pounds in 1996 to 5.1 pounds in 1997.

Marijuana confiscations declined from 843.6 pounds in 1995 to 132.8 pounds in 1996 and 107 pounds in 1997.

Rappaport, a former state police major and Howard County police chief who maintains extensive contacts in law enforcement, provided almost identical figures last week -- saying they had been passed to him by sources "outside official channels."

Biggest decline in Perryville

Figures from the John F. Kennedy Barracks in Perryville -- which has made a disproportionate share of the seizures because of its location along I-95 -- show the bulk of the decline took place along that busy corridor.

The decline in drug seizures in 1997 indicates that some troopers may have interpreted the agency's policy against race-based traffic stops and searches as a blanket ban on consent searches -- searches made when a suspicious trooper asks permission to search a vehicle despite not having probable cause.

But Shipley cited figures for 1998 that showed the number of consent searches by the Perryville barracks increased from 86 in the first three quarters of 1997 to 264 in the first three quarters of 1998.

Mitchell ascribed the 1997 drop to troopers' concerns about being added as defendants in the ACLU lawsuit and the "chilling effect" of heavy publicity the case received two years ago.

Rappaport pinned the blame squarely on Curran, charging that the Democrat had told state troopers he would not defend them if they stopped and searched the cars of any drivers from a minority group.

Curran defends actions

Curran denied that allegation, saying his office had handled the case vigorously on behalf of the state police and individual troopers who were named as defendants in the ACLU suit.

"We are defending all the state police in the current action, and we are defending all state police in any other action," Curran said.

The attorney general said he and his assistants had told troopers they must not use race alone as a basis for stopping and searching a driver's vehicle -- a policy reinforced by a directive from Mitchell. "In America you don't stop and search a person because he's black," Curran said in an interview last week.

Rappaport's charge that Curran had lost troopers' confidence drew support from Sgt. Millard McKay, president of the Maryland Troopers Association. McKay said statements by Assistant Attorney General Betty Sconion gave troopers the impression they would not be "properly represented" by Curran's office.

McKay, whose association has endorsed Rappaport, said that impression made some troopers reluctant to conduct consent searches. "They weren't going to put their families and their homes in jeopardy if the attorney general wasn't going to vigorously represent them," he said.

McKay said Curran and Mitchell have since met with troopers and assured them that they could expect representation. He said that "it's taken a long time to get that message across to the troopers," but that they are coming around to the belief that the state will back them.

Battaglia sounds alarm

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