In 1992, prosecutors confiscated George Aravanis' Somerset County farm after he was convicted of possessing 2.5 pounds of marijuana. Yesterday, Maryland's highest court said they may have to give it back.
The Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that laws allowing prosecutors to confiscate a drug dealer's property are not blank checks for the state. The amount prosecutors take must not exceed the severity of the crime, the court held.
The 27-page decision gives judges, who have been limited to ensuring proper procedures were followed, more discretion to decide whether the punishment fits the crime.
"It's going to make it much harder for prosecutors to confiscate property," said Andrew Dansicker, the New York lawyer brought in by the American Civil Liberties Union to represent Mr. Aravanis.
The decision will allow Mr. Dansicker to argue in a new hearing that taking the farm was excessive, he said.
Mr. Aravanis, a 54-year-old father of nine, pleaded guilty Jan. 23, 1992, in Somerset County Circuit Court to possession of marijuana with intent to distribute and was sentenced to 18 months in jail. He lost the farm he had owned for 20 years in a separate proceeding in which Judge Daniel Long ruled he was obligated to approve the forfeiture if the proper procedures were followed.
Mr. Aravanis, who served his sentence and has been allowed to live on his four-acre farm pending the outcome of the appeal, said forfeiting the farm would be excessive because he was selling marijuana for only two months and needs the farm for his livelihood.
He said the land and the three-bedroom house where three of his children were born probably is worth about $40,000.
"Taking it away would be far above and beyond what I did," he said. "This place is my home, it's my life, it's my world."
But Somerset County State's Attorney Logan C. Widdowson, who prosecuted the case, disagreed.
"He's not like the little guy selling a little bit of drugs on the street. He's in it for a big profit," Mr. Widdowson said.
Mr. Widdowson complained that the ruling fails to specify any legal tests for courts to decide whether forfeitures are fair.
"The legislature sends us laws that allow us to get in the drug dealers' pocketbooks, and now the court is telling us we're not getting in their pocketbook in the right way. To be completely honest, I'm confused," he said.
Maryland's drug forfeiture laws were enacted over the past decade as attempts to go after the proceeds of drug dealers' transactions. The laws have been used by police and prosecutors to confiscate millions of dollars worth of houses, boats and cars.
But in recents years, defense lawyers have complained that state and federal forfeiture laws give prosecutors too much discretion. Prosecutors needed only to show some connection between the property and the illegal drug activity, Mr. Dansicker said.
"Basically, there was nothing you could do," he said.