The county police chief's "zero tolerance" drug policy has brought dramatic increases in drug arrests and property seizures since it began in February, but it also has raised concerns that civil rights will be trampled in a rush to put drug users in jail.

The decree to seize cars and money in even the weakest drug cases is "not a well-thought-out policy," said Peter O'Neil, a Glen Burnie defense lawyer. "They seize first and figure out later."

But Anne Arundel County Police Chief Larry W. Tolliver said he has the support of the community.

"I must have had a five-minute round of applause for the zero tolerance drug policy and sobriety checkpoints," Tolliver recalled of a recent community meeting. "I have yet to have one person at one of the community meetings to complain about the two issues."

Since Tolliver took office in February, vehicle seizures have tripled, with police taking 75 cars in the first three months of this year, compared to 24 in the same period last year.

The state's attorney's office is to begin a silent auction tomorrow of 37 cars seized in previous years' forfeitures. They expect sales to bring in $25,000 to support the forfeiture program.

Tolliver said the profit goes to the county in more ways than one.

"It seems we have more than an abundance of [burglaries] and petty thefts, and we believe it's drug-driven," Tolliver said. "I think [the policy] can help take down the drug users. The user is just as bad as the guy selling."

Broadly written state forfeiture laws allow police to confiscate any money "involved in" drugs or "in close proximity to" drugs -- even if police make no arrest.

Trevor A. Kiessling, assistant state's attorney in charge of the forfeiture unit, said losing their cars is a worse penalty to drug dealers and users than jail time.

"It's the property that they are concerned about, more so than their pending criminal charge," Kiessling said. "They don't see their liberty at risk in the criminal system. Even the nonuse of the vehicle has a tremendous impact."

But sometimes the impact lands on the wrong people. Mary D. Martin's rusty 1987 Ford Mustang was seized when her daughter was arrested on charges of forging prescription for drugs.

"You tell me by seizing my car it inconvenienced her?" demanded Martin of Pasadena. "They just took my rights and threw them in the gutter."

Martin got her car back after a few weeks, but she had to pay the $250 towing and storage fee -- nearly as much as a week's pay for her -- and sign an agreement that said her daughter would not be allowed to use the car again.

Many others who picked up their vehicles the same day as Martin paid stiff fines along with the towing and storage fee.

Kiessling claimed, however, that Martin knew what her daughter was doing and said it was irresponsible to allow the woman to use the car.

"It's the lack of taking personal responsibility that I have a problem with," Kiessling said.

Although community associations have hailed the zero tolerance policy, there are plenty of others who feel otherwise.

"I've just lost all confidence in police," said Debbie Fogler, whose son Steve had $322 taken from him when narcotics detectives raided the parking lot of a Royal Farm store in the 200 block of Oak Manor Drive.

The 16-year-old junior at Old Mill High School drove to the store with friends in his father's truck Feb. 24. A county police patrol car pulled in behind the truck and within seconds, the parking lot was filled with officers in marked and unmarked cars. Police ordered the boys out of the truck and searched them and the truck without saying what they were looking for.

They found no drugs, made no arrests, but seized a retractable pole and the money, which was hidden in the fuse box.

Neither Tolliver nor Kiessling would comment on the case because it involves a juvenile. Kiessling said he decided not to prosecute, however, and returned the money. The Foglers got the check earlier this month.

Steve, a varsity baseball player, has never been in trouble with the law and wanted to be a police officer. Now he says he'll never trust police.

Tolliver and Kiessling agreed that they are willing to risk a few mistakes to cut down on drug use and drug-related crimes.

"When I weigh the innocent owners' needs against society's needs, I don't have a problem with the person being put out for a period of time," Kiessling said.

Pub Date: 4/25/97

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