FORFEITURE LAW PROVING BONANZA FOR DRUGS TASK FORCE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

One marijuana cigarette cost Eadrich H. Clarke of Baltimore $7,433.

On April 19, 1990, Clarke was stopped by an Aberdeen police officer for making an illegal right turn at a traffic light near WashingtonPark, an area of town police say is known for drug trafficking.

The officer asked Clarke if he could search his 1987 Volkswagen Golf, and according to the court records, the 23-year-old city man consented.

During the search, the officer said, he found a shoe box filled with the cash and a marijuana joint tucked in a car seat.

Clarke, who has three previous drug convictions in Maryland and New Jersey, was charged with possession of drugs. He was found guilty in Harford District Court in April and now is appealing the conviction in county Circuit Court.

Meanwhile, the Harford State's Attorney's Office initiated proceedings against Clarke to forfeit the cash found inhis car. The state law the prosecutors used allows money, vehicles and property to be seized if it's suspected they were part of alleged drug deals. In this instance, Clarke was the loser, even though his Circuit Court case is pending: He was ordered to forfeit the money found in his car to the Aberdeen Police Department in a May 8 ruling issued by District Judge John L. Dunnigan.

The case marks the first time the county has used a year-old provision of the seizure law that permits forfeitures when a defendant has been previously charged withdrug offenses, said Harford State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly. Police also are permitted to seize cash and property when the items are found near drugs at the time of an arrest or search, according to thelaw.

Police and prosecutors say the forfeiture law is a powerful weapon in the war on drugs, but civil liberties attorneys contend that the statute's provisions cut against the grain of the Constitution.

"It takes the incentive away (to deal drugs)," Cassilly, the prosecutor, said. "If the guy knows he's not going to be able to keep anything, hopefully he won't do anything."

Stewart Comstock-Gay, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, sees the law as worrisome. "(The law) has a lower standard in which you can lose your property," he said. "It has a lower standard in which you can lose your livelihood.

"It seems to turn our system on its head."

The forfeiture law has provided a steady source of income for the Harford Joint Narcotics Task Force, making criminals contributeto the cost of operating police departments, Cassilly said.

Lt. Thomas Golding, spokesman for the task force, said the task force has netted about $300,000 in cash and property from drug arrests under the forfeiture law since 1988 -- when the task force was established.

The task force and the county Sheriff's Department have handled about 125 forfeiture cases in the last three years, said Golding, who also serves as supervisor of the department's covert operations division.

The money has been used to buy items ranging from surveillance equipment to facsimile machines for the five police agencies in the task force, Golding said.

Some proceeds from the forfeitures also have been given for drug education programs to the county government'sDrug Alcohol Impact Program and the county Board of Education.

The task force also has used the law to seize vehicles, portable telephones, pagers and scanners, Cassilly said. The items have either been sold at auction or put into use by the police departments.

Aberdeen Police Chief John R. Jolley said the money from the Clarke case will buy radar equipment, a computer and flashlights for the department.

Without the forfeited money, the department would have had to wait until next year to buy the equipment, Jolley said.

"This was a good windfall for us," the police chief said.

In addition to serving as a deterrent, Cassilly said the law de

prives convicts money that they could use to get back into the narcotics business once released from prison.

Judges also use the forfeiture law to punish drugoffenders as an alternative to giving them long prison terms and keeping another inmate in the overcrowded prison system, Cassilly said.

Comstock-Gay, of the ACLU, is critical of the law, particularly because it requires defendants to prove that their belongings did not come from drug sales before they go to trial. The law allows prosecutors to take a defendant's property, even if they don't have enough evidence for a conviction, Comstock-Gay said. This, he said, conflicts with the standard of innocent until proven guilty.

Alan L. Cohen, aBaltimore attorney representing Clarke, the defendant, is also critical of the law. He said the seizure law puts casual drug users in thesame group as hard-core dealers, allowing little leeway for defendants to keep cash and property when even a small amount of drugs are found.

In Clarke's case, Cassilly said the defendant did not providea "legitimate explanation" of why he had a shoe box containing nearly $7,400 in his car. According to court papers, Clarke argued that hehad the money because he was on his way to buy a car.

Golding said defendants need to provide bank statements and check stubs to provethat money did not come from drug sales.

Since 1988, the Harford judges have denied only one request for forfeiture, and that was because the defendant did not own the car that the police had seized, Golding said. The law states that property owned by an "innocent owner" cannot be forfeited.

In addition, one defendant has appealed a forfeiture order in the last three years, but later dropped the case andgave up the property, Golding said.

The state forfeiture law, established in 1972, initially allowed police to seize cash and vehiclestied to drug arrests, but it was expanded last year to cover real estate.

Golding said the task force has not seized real estate underthe code yet.

The state can seek forfeiture of property immediately after a suspect's arrest, but forfeiture proceedings for cash can't start until after a conviction.

"We're taking the profit out of the hands of the defendant," Golding said. "That's what they're in the business for, for the money. . . . We're hurting them where it hurts, where their pocketbooks are."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
16°