Jerry F. Barnes, Carroll County's newly inaugurated state's attorney, is making some much-needed changes to the county's narcotics task force. Once the new policies are in place, the task force will likely become more effective in its drug-fighting efforts and a lot less abusive of basic constitutional rights.
Separating criminal prosecution from the recovery of seized property is the most important change Mr. Barnes is proposing. The deplorable practice of former state's attorney Thomas E. Hickman of using the state's forfeiture law to seize cars, computers and money is coming to an end. Mr. Barnes rightly recognizes that the law was intended to inflict financial hardship on the drug dealers who were reaping large profits from their illegal business, not to underwrite the task force.
Mr. Hickman's use of the forfeiture laws in misdemeanor possession cases may have been in keeping with his "zero-tolerance" approach to drug use, but it also resulted in trampling of fundamental constitutional rights of due process.
The Carroll County task force's favorite tactic was the so-called "buy back." People arrested for drug possession were RTC encouraged to buy back their seized property. In return, criminal charges were then dropped. This abusive process resembled a police shakedown and undermined the task force's reputation.
Another welcome change is Mr. Barnes' promise to conduct a yearly audit of drug task force accounts. Mr. Hickman's misguided effort to keep task force finances secret only aroused suspicion that he was covering up financial and police misconduct. Annual audits will do much to allay fears of the task force mishandling seized property, drugs and money and ensure that it remains free of corruption.
Barton F. Walker III, a former assistant state's attorney who headed the task force, has insinuated that crass "politics" are behind Mr. Barnes' proposed changes.
He's right: Carroll's citizens were fed up with the task force's past practices and demanded changes by voting his boss out of office last year.
If Mr. Barnes sticks to his plan to keep the criminal prosecution and the civil forfeiture on separate tracks and conduct annual audits, he will make considerable strides in restoring the task force's reputation and insuring that due process is restored to Carroll County's prosecution of drug crimes.