Howard County State's Attorney William R. Hymes has a sporty new car, and undercover narcotics detectives aren't too happy about it.
The car, a maroon 1989 Nissan Maxima with a "blue book" value of $21,000, was seized by police from a drug dealer last June. Detectives typically use such cars for their undercover operations or auction them off to fund other investigations.
But how and why the Maxima got into the hands of Hymes has gearedup a lot more than just car trouble.
"We're dying for cars, and he comes along and takes this one for his own personal use," said E. Lawrence Knutson, the head of the county narcotics unit.
"We've gotundercover guys out there using their own cars, and they don't particularly like that," Knutson said. "It's dangerous. What if a drug dealer spots an officer's wife and kids riding in the car?"
Hymes commandeered the car last week, much to the surprise of the narcotics officers, who had notified him last July that they intended to use it for their undercover operations.
By law, Hymes is entitled to use the car. The county provides vehicles to Executive Charles I. Ecker and the heads of several key departments, and Hymes insists the car will be used almost entirely for business.
But the four-door import has, due to matters of pride and principle, ripped an even wider gap in the already-strained relations between police and Hymes.
"My office needs a car. I've put over 240,000 miles on my two Cadillacs in the last 12 years with all the driving around that I've had to do," said Hymes, who has been head of the office since 1978.
The former owner of the car had made a $14,000 down payment in May, and police needed only $7,000 to pay off the lien and keep a car they hoped would be good cover for upper-level drug investigations.
"That car wouldhave been a perfect addition to our fleet," said outgoing Police Chief Frederick W. Chaney. "We can't afford many new cars of our own because of how tight the budget is. It's an inconsiderate move on Mr. Hymes' part."
Hymes said the snafu over the car has become a sour-grapes issue created by officers looking to discredit him. The vehicle, he says, would not only be used for his own personal transportationbut would also be available for office use.
"All I can say is, a lot of jealousy has reared its head over a car that I need and that my office needs," he said.
Hymes, who earns $82,200 a year, said hehas always used his own cars for business-related transportation. Hesaid he incurred almost all of the county-logged miles over the years driving to and from interviews with informants.
The narcotics officers, Hymes said, "have got plenty of Cadillacs, Lincolns and otherflashy cars. Larry (Knutson) himself is driving around in a top-of-the-line Mercedes Benz."
Knutson actually just switched to a gray Pontiac, a change police officials say was necessary after county budget-crunching made it impossible to afford the maintenance and repair bills on the gold Mercedes.
Officers are allowed to drive police cars for their personal use because they are typically on call for public safety service.
Police say that many of the 16 cars being driven by narcotics officers are indeed luxury models, although most are more than 6 years old and have been driven more than 100,000 miles.
Many of the narcotics officers, Knutson said, hope to get new cars through asset forfeiture. Replacement vehicles aren't available through county funding.
According to county records, the Police Department requested funding for 69 marked and unmarked police cars for fiscal 1991. But budget cuts trimmed that figure, leaving the department with money for 35 cars -- all of which, police say, will be marked patrol cars.
Hymes said he cleared taking the car with Ecker and expects the car will see limited personal use. His daily commute takes less than 10 minutes, and his schedule only allows for brief periodic vacations, he said.
Ecker said he had no problems with allowing Hymes to use the car. When they discussed the situation several weeks ago, the executive said, Hymes explained that he would give the car back if the police needed the vehicle.
"If the police need the car, then yes, I would have a problem with (Hymes') driving it," Ecker said. "The police can have the car back if they really want it."
Hymes said he would abide by whatever decision Ecker makes on the issue. But he steadfastly maintained that he is not looking for a free ride.
"With all the county business-related driving I was doing, it didn't seem reasonable to continue to pile up miles on my own cars," said Hymes, who accused Chaney of taking "a parting shot" at him just prior to leaving office. Chaney, who was told by Ecker in December to resign, left office Friday.
Hymes said he believes Chaney is takingrevenge because Hymes did not recommend him when Ecker asked for advice on the police chief appointment.
But the chief, who drove a department-issued Pontiac Bonneville, said the car issue is indicative of the lack of cooperation he saw between police and Hymes' administration in the last three years.
"He could have at least told us what he was up to," Chaney said. "To just take it for himself is a good-old-boy approach. That's not the way a state's attorney should be doing things anymore."
Assistant State's Attorney Timothy J. McCrone,who handles asset forfeitures for the office and also is a chief prosecutor of narcotics cases, said the county has seized approximately 30 cars since August 1988.
However, some of the cars were not suitable for police use, either because their attaching liens were too costly or maintenance would have proved too expensive, McCrone said.
The narcotics division, he said, needs to switch undercover cars constantly in order to maintain effective cover.
"One of the practical problems in vice and narcotics is that there is an extensive need for cars," McCrone said. On the opposite side of the coin, however, isthe fact that Hymes is one of the few county department heads who didn't have a county vehicle.
McCrone said he is hoping that the situation does not put pressure on the relationship between county narcotics detectives and narcotics prosecutors, who he said have always maintained a good working rapport.
"I understand that the narcotics officers, who are in one of the most dangerous positions in the Police Department, would be upset over something like this," McCrone said."But this is a time for both our offices to focus on the common goal. We seize these cars to punish the drug dealers."
Use of the carsin law enforcement is a secondary benefit and "shouldn't break the two sides apart," he said.