THE DECISION by Carroll County State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes to halt "buybacks" of confiscated property should end one of the county's most abusive law enforcement practices. Instead of having the police engage in legally questionable seizures of automobiles and personal property and back-alley negotiating with drug suspects, the seizures will be handled in a fair, impartial -- and legal -- fashion.
The man whom Mr. Barnes unseated, former State's Attorney Thomas E. Hickman, argues that his successor is surrendering an effective weapon against drug dealers. That's nonsense. Police can still seize property and assets from alleged dealers, but the confiscations must have some relation to the alleged criminal activity. No longer will law enforcement officials take cars and money from drug suspects and then fail to file criminal charges, as was done all too often in the past.
Mr. Hickman's criticism of the new policy was predictable. He always has believed that the ends -- stopping drug trafficking -- justified any means. He seems incapable of understanding that in the American system of justice, due process and adhering to the law are the paramount standards. Mr. Hickman believes that his notion of "street justice" of taking a teen-ager's car or relieving a drug dealer of a few thousand dollars somehow vindicates his questionable practices. He offers anecdotes about how effective the buybacks were in curbing drug use. Yet drug use in the county continues.
The insidiousness of the drug trade aside, whether these buybacks deterred drug dealing is, frankly, immaterial. The seizures and buybacks violated the basic precepts of the Bill of Rights that limit the government's ability to take a citizen's property. In fact, Mr. Hickman's disregard for due process led to the demise of the Carroll County Narcotics Task Force.
Mr. Barnes deserves credit for turning over a new leaf for the county. His policy of following formal civil forfeiture procedures by appearing before a judge will do a great deal to restore faith in the county's drug enforcement efforts. Past practices of seizing cars because the driver was found with a microscopic amount of marijuana or taking all the money out of a suspect's wallet as a quid pro quo for not filing any criminal charges will end.