STATE Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli may not have found evidence of criminal activity in Anne Arundel County's asset forfeiture program, but the sweeping seizure of automobiles by law enforcement should be troubling nonetheless.
When county Police Chief Larry W. Tolliver instituted his "zero tolerance" policy a year ago, he left the impression that this get-tough stance would discourage casual drug use.
Apparently, fear of losing one's car has not discouraged people from carrying drugs when they drive in the county.
In the 12 months since the "zero tolerance" policy has been in effect, 571 cars have been seized -- a fourfold increase over 1996.
Police officials say the seizure of cars is merely one initiative to curb drug-related crime. The department has stepped up interdiction efforts, trying to incept large drug shipments. It is reaching out to local motel owners if they suspect customers are renting a room merely for a drug transaction.
The department is also advising its patrol officers to be on the lookout for drugs during routine stops. As a result, county police made 2,209 drug arrests the past 12 months, 19 percent more than the 1,852 in 1996.
Chief rivals AutoNation
Who needs Sunday car sales when you have a police chief whose inventory of confiscated vehicles rivals that of AutoNation? Meanwhile, court dockets are full of minor drug possession cases.
The police chief would argue it is too early to draw firm conclusions about the effectiveness of seizing cars. Perhaps it is. But it is reasonable to make a couple of preliminary observations.
When it comes to drug use, fear has never been an effective deterrent. Incarceration and fines have been ineffective, and the loss of an automobile seems to be equally ineffective.
Even though the department's seizure policy has received considerable publicity, people are still carrying drugs in their cars. Some of them even have drugs or paraphernalia -- crack pipes, roach clips -- sitting in full view on their dashboards when stopped for a routine traffic violation.
Message not sinking in
These people are incredibly dense or the message isn't getting through. Either way, the desired end -- deterrence -- isn't being realized.
So, what is the purpose of continuing the policy of confiscating cars?
One can only assume that the purpose may have changed. Rather than trying to eradicate casual drug trafficking, the county has decided to look at confiscation as a source of revenue and a means of bureaucratic empire-building. Last year, the county raised $539,000 from asset seizures.
Why else would we have had the bitter, public clash between county State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee and County Executive John G. Gary?
The dispute over who should conduct the auctions of these cars is yet to be resolved, six months after county officials directly accused the prosecutor's office of perjury and favoritism and, indirectly, of corruption.
Now that the state prosecutor has announced his office found no evidence of criminal activities in the handling of the forfeited assets, it's a good time to examine whether this program is worth the hassle.
When cars are being seized at the rate of almost two a day, the county has created a lot of work for itself. Not only must these vehicles be inventoried, their titles have to be checked, and reams of documents have to be assembled, signed and submitted to court.
There is no way to shortcut this process -- nor should there be. The Constitution rightly made it onerous for government to take private property. As a result, the police and prosecutor's office must follow certain procedures before they can take title to these seized cars.
As a result, police and prosecutors readily admit that most of the cars are returned to their owners, usually after negotiating some type of "buyback."
The owners are assessed a fine and have to sign agreements that they won't use drugs or that they won't lend the car to the driver who was allegedly caught with drugs.
The bottom line is that the county collects several hundred dollars on each buyback. If the owner doesn't want the car, the county auctions it off, possibly obtaining a better return.
The objective may have shifted to maximizing return on confiscated cars rather than curbing drug use.
Is this racketeering?
Although these confiscations are being done lawfully, it creates a stench. Were this activity being conducted by anyone other than government officials, it would be labeled racketeering.
Unless county law enforcement officers can demonstrate that confiscating property is effectively curbing drug use, the practice of seizing cars should be halted.
Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.
Pub Date: 3/01/98