State lawmakers, concerned that street level drug dealers will be unable to replace the heroin, crack cocaine and other poisons that the police seize when they arrest the dealers, will likely vote on the first day of the session on a bill requiring the police to return up to $300 to the dealers.
As absurd as that sentence sounds during the current epidemic of heroin deaths and overdoses, that is exactly what a vote to override Gov. Larry Hogan's veto of Senate Bill 528 changes to the state's forfeiture laws will do.
Street level drug dealers sell drugs to users in amounts costing from $10 to $100. The drug world not being one of trust, most dealers are only given small quantities to sell. Once they take the proceeds of those sales to their suppliers, they get more to sell. Dealers may bring in several thousand dollars a day, but to avoid being robbed they don't keep more than a few hundred on them. As a result, a requirement that police return to dealers $300 from the money seized at the time of arrest will in most cases mean that street dealers' assets are immune from seizure.
During the crack cocaine devastation of the 1980s, the legislature adopted a comprehensive statute to let law enforcement seize the money the dealer would use to obtain a new supply and to deprive them of the incentive to deal drugs. This has been effective over the past 25 years to cut into the working capital of the illegal drug trade and slow down how quickly arrested drug dealers are able to return to business. But now in this age of "the cops are the bad guys and the bad guys are the victims," a determined group of legislators got a bill passed last session to make sure that the poor drug dealers will get back up to $300 of the money the police find on them. This is a major step toward legalizing drug dealing.
To answer concerns for those who might be wrongfully arrested for drug dealing, police and prosecutors have crafted new legislation to create an administrative review process to allow for a review of the seizing officer's decision and return of the property. The legislature should be willing to work with law enforcement on a commonsense compromise.
The second portion of the vetoed bill deals with restricting Maryland's police from acting on information received from other state or federal law enforcement agencies to intercept drug money. So if DEA agents in New York or New Jersey alert Maryland troopers to intercept a car carrying $250,000 in drug proceeds, or if North Carolina police give Maryland troopers a description of some buyers with $50,000 to buy heroin and cocaine, this new law would prevent those Maryland troopers from seizing the money and turning over the money to federal authorities. Although the United States Attorney General has strict procedures for when these proceeds can be turned over to the Feds, this absurd law would require Maryland law enforcement to return the money to the drug dealers; fortunately it does not require the police to apologize.
The reasons for these changes to a law that has worked for 25 years have to do with the legislators having read press reports of problems in other states whose laws differ from Maryland. It does not matter to the legislature that much of the money forfeited to law enforcement over this time has gone to drug abuse prevention education, enabled the police to acquire up-to-date technology and paid for training. In Harford County drug dealers' money has helped create a Child Advocacy Center, fund training programs for law enforcement and first responders through the community college, fund the filming of a video for the schools to improve school attendance, train K-9 dogs, etc.
Fortunately for the citizens of Maryland plagued by the devastation of drug addiction, violent neighborhoods and drug funded gangs, Governor Hogan vetoed the bill that threatens to remove this weapon from law enforcement's arsenal. Legislators who pretend to want to deal with the scourge of heroin are anxious to override the veto. The citizens need to contact their legislators.
Joseph I. Cassilly is state's attorney for Harford County; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.