WASHINGTON – Maryland State Police are reviewing their policies for seizing property in drug cases, after the Supreme Court’s rejection of a Baltimore case on the subject last week.
A police spokesman said the department is reviewing the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision in Mayor and City Council of Baltimore vs. One 1995 Corvette “to ensure we are following the appropriate procedures.” That case involved city police officers, but could have an effect on all police agencies in the state.
Several Maryland defense attorneys said they expect the high court’s ruling could affect the millions of dollars of property that police have seized from criminal defendants. State police said they seized $2.2 million in cash and $2.6 million in property from criminal suspects in 1997, the latest year for which figures were available.
“It’ll protect people’s rights,” said lawyer Richard Finci, of the high court’s recent decision. “It’ll protect people’s rights to be free from illegal searches and seizures.”
Finci, of Houlon & Berman in New Carrollton, had argued the case in lower courts and filed papers with the Supreme Court, which rejected the state’s appeal without comment last week.
The case stemmed from the May 1996 arrest of Weldon Holmes after what police said was a drug deal on Parkview Avenue in Baltimore. City police said they found more than a pound of cocaine in Holmes’ 1995 Corvette after they arrested him.
But a circuit judge ruled that police had improperly obtained the cocaine from Holmes’ car and could not use it as evidence in the trial against him. Criminal charges against Holmes were eventually dropped.
The cocaine was also barred as evidence in a separate civil trial to seize the car as a drug asset. The judge relied on a 1965 Supreme Court ruling that prohibited Pennsylvania prosecutors from using seized bootleg liquor as evidence in a forfeiture proceeding involving the car that contained the liquor.
The Maryland Court of Appeals agreed with the trial judge in February, ruling that police cannot seize property that is based on illegally obtained evidence.
City and state officials argued that more recent rulings by the high court have weakened the 1965 decision. But Appeals Court Judge Dale R. Cathell wrote that while the exclusionary rule has been weakened over time, “We do not believe it to be appropriate … for this court to attempt to overrule,” the 1965 decision.
The state appealed to the Supreme Court, whose refusal to hear the case means the Court of Appeals ruling stands.
“Given the current state of the law, it doesn’t make sense to apply this to civil forfeiture cases,” said Assistant Attorney General Andrew Baida, who argued the case before the Court of Appeals. “The (Supreme) court chose to rule with the status quo.”
That sat well with defense attorneys in Maryland.
Augustus Brown, a partner with Brown, Brown & Brown in Bel Air, said he is “hopeful” this will lead to other courts dismissing similar cases.
“(Forfeiture) is used sometimes where the automobile is used as leverage to get a defendant to plead guilty,” said Brown. Stricter forfeiture procedures will make prosecutors do their job more effectively, he said.
State police said they are reviewing those procedures to see if they need to be stricter.
“The reason it’s important to us to monitor is to ensure we are following the appropriate procedures,” said Maj. Greg Shipley, a spokesman for state police. “Our commitment is to follow the law and the way the law is interpreted by the courts.”
Finci said the case was successful in that it clarified points about a basic law. But seized property is still a problem in Maryland, he said.
“The state likes to take property and seize it,” he said. “It’s easier than taxes.”