APPARENTLY MEMBERS of Carroll County Sheriff John H. Brown's drug strike force never bothered to read the state's attorney's new guidelines on drug forfeitures. Had they, they would not have bothered seizing a vehicle as part of a minor drug arrest last weekend.
In order to end the abusive practices of the former Carroll County Narcotics Task Force, Jerry F. Barnes, who was elected last year as Carroll's state's attorney, issued instructions that forfeitures are to be used only in felony distribution cases. The deputies' seizure of a sport utility vehicle from a Hampstead man caught with about one-eighth of an ounce of crack cocaine didn't come close to meeting the new standard. It appears that he bought the crack for his own use because the amount is too small to be divided and resold -- a fact the sheriff's deputies conveniently ignored.
The state's attorney's office, which is responsible for handling all legal work involved with the forfeitures, apparently will not pursue this seizure in the courts. Judging from published comments, the prosecutors don't believe this particular case will stand up. Given a recent unanimous Maryland Appeals Court ruling that forfeitures be in proportion to the crime, Mr. Barnes is making a very reasonable call.
His decision isn't about coddling drug dealers; it's about employing resources to effectively fight the war on crime and not to make spectacles of small fish to garner headlines. Mr. Barnes also does not want a repeat of the 1993 case in which a college student was caught with a pipe that contained minute amounts of marijuana. The Narcotics Task Force seized his new Nissan Pathfinder and never pursued criminal charges against him. When the case came before Circuit Court Judge Luke K. Burns Jr., he dismissed it and warned police against seizing vehicles when they discover only small amounts of drugs on defendants.
The sheriff's office has yet to make a good case why it should be involved in drug enforcement. Arbitrary property seizures such as this reinforce the belief that Sheriff Brown should focus on his primary job -- running the detention center, providing security at the courthouse and delivering court summons. He would be better off leaving narcotics work to officers who have enough sense to read guidelines.
The gang that couldn't read straight; Sheriff deputies didn't come close to following guidelines in seizing car.