For nearly two years, Carroll County's drug task force seized thousands of dollars worth of cars from suspected drug users and dealers and sold them back to their owners, even though only five cases ever led to felony convictions.
The findings, contained in a county government audit released yesterday, illustrate the reliance of former State's Attorney Thomas E. Hickman on property seizures to fund the now-defunct task force -- a practice that has been strongly criticized by civil libertarians, Carroll Circuit Court judges and the county's commissioners.
Eighty-three percent of the 64 defendants who bought back their cars between September 1992 and June 1994 saw their criminal charges dropped, their cases placed on inactive dockets, or their case otherwise diminished, said the audit.
County Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown, who reviewed the audit last week, said it raised serious questions. "The appropriate office, either on the county or state level, is going to have to investigate and get to the bottom of this."
Mr. Hickman, a five-term incumbent who was defeated in November by Carroll State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes, had not seen a copy of the audit yesterday.
But he defended his office's handling of drug cases.
"The buybacks were handled totally separate and apart from criminal charges," the former prosecutor said. "There are standard procedures that we followed."
The 42-page report, more than nine months in the making, says Mr. Hickman and former Assistant State's Attorney Barton F. Walker III kept sloppy records, allowed seized cars to become disabled and lost track of thousands of dollars.
Mr. Walker could not be reached last night.
"With the primary mission of the task force to investigate, arrest and remove dealers from society, the action taken on these 64 incidents does not support this mission," Carroll auditor C. Lawrence Wiskeman wrote.
"Thus, it appears the previous state's attorney administration used the buyback process as a way to generate funds."
The audit says the buybacks netted the task force more than $47,000.
But it also says that more than $25,000 gained thorough buybacks and asset forfeiture was lost or unaccounted for.
"Basically, the documentation and processing of seized vehicles was inadequate and has resulted in numerous and costly problems for the current administration," Mr. Wiskeman wrote. "There was a considerable loss in revenue to the task force."
Problems in the way the former Carroll County Narcotics Task Force handled asset forfeiture were disclosed shortly after officers in the group raided the farm of Pamela Snowhite Davis in 1992. In that raid, which launched the one-time entrepreneur into the national spotlight, the task force pursued a litany of felony drug charges after less than an ounce of marijuana was found in the farmhouse.
The case led to an outcry when a county judge sentenced Ms. Davis -- the so-called Marijuana Mama -- to six years in prison. Ms. Davis' convictions were recently overturned by Maryland's appellate courts.
"This is the danger of unbridled power," Stuart Comstock-Gay, the executive director of the Maryland American Civil Liberties Union, said yesterday.