FIGHTING DRUGS is a dirty business, but that doesn't mean the government should descend into the gutter with the drug dealers.
Anne Arundel County Police Chief Larry Tolliver, in his letter to the editor at right, defends the practice of seizing cars in misdemeanor drug cases.
He says his policy is to "enforce vigorously all laws controlling substance abuse," which includes seizing property as allowed under Maryland law.
But the issue is not whether this policy is within legal bounds.
Secure in our possessions
The issue is that the current methods being used by county police to enforce the law violate one of the most basic rights we have as citizens: to be secure in our possessions.
Mr. Tolliver's policy is seize first, ask questions later. The result has been that a number of innocent people have lost the use of their cars and have gone through incredible hassle to get them returned.
Two weeks ago, I wrote about Mary Diane Martin. This case embodies the pitfalls of having a blanket order to seize cars involved in misdemeanor drug offenses.
Mrs. Martin's daughter attempted to pass a forged prescription for Percocet, a narcotic pain killer. Police caught her and seized the car she was driving.
The case was handed over to the state's attorney. After several weeks, the prosecutor and investigator who handled seized vehicles determined that Mrs. Martin was indeed the legal owner of the car, meaning that the county government did not have any right to impound her car for her daughter's alleged offense.
Nonetheless, Mrs. Martin had to pay $250 to cover the costs of towing and storage. After she took possession of her car, she discovered that the pager that had been clipped to the visor was missing.
Even though Mrs. Martin is innocent, she was treated as if she were guilty of some crime. She suffered punishment in the form of a fine and the loss of her pager.
After this experience, Mrs. Martin's attitude toward the police has soured.
She is not alone.
Others citizens have been caught in this net. You don't have to be a social scientist with a Ph.D. to determine that in the future these victims won't look kindly on the county police force.
The chief claims his job is to enforce the law. He says he is not to exercise any judgment or "enforce laws selectively."
That argument is nonsense. His officers don't write up every speeder they encounter, nor cite every jaywalker they see, nor ticket every illegally parked car.
Most officers use discretion in enforcing these laws, and they should be encouraged to use the same powers of judgment in seizing automobiles in misdemeanor drug possession cases.
Why is Mr. Tolliver making this car seizure policy a cornerstone of his anti-drug effort?
From a law enforcement perspective, it doesn't have any impact on overall drug use because many of the charges against the defendants are dropped or pleaded down to probation.
Public relations value
No, Mr. Tolliver is wedded to this policy for its supposed public relations value. Seizing cars sends a message that Anne Arundel is "tough" on drugs.
Fighting drugs has always been framed as a "war." Perhaps that is the root of the problem.
In every war are innocent victims. These casualties are considered to be the price that has to be paid to achieve victory.
While all of us would like to see the end of drug trafficking in our community, I am not sure that people are willing to endure the kind of treatment that results from Mr. Tolliver's zero-tolerance policy.
This policy of seizing cars at every opportunity is a ham-fisted way to enforce the law. Anyone who lets a child, relative or friend use a car who gets caught with drugs is likely to have to spend weeks retrieving it from county impound lot.
Wedge between police, public
The sad fact is that I seriously doubt that this draconian policy will reduce drug use one bit. More likely, it will drive an unnecessary wedge between the public and police.
People who have first-hand experience of this treatment are certain to feel alienated from the police.
As they tell their story to relatives, friends, co-workers and others, the gap between police and the citizenry will widen.
Mr. Tolliver claims that "most" citizens support his effort. How he knows this is unclear. Nevertheless, as more of these horror stories surface, public opinion may take shape in a way Mr. Tolliver didn't count on.
Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.
Pub Date: 4/06/97