ANNAPOLIS -- A year after Maryland's drug forfeiture law was enacted amid criticism that it was too weak, prosecutors say the law has not made much difference.
The civil forfeiture law allows the state to take a suspected drug trafficker's house, cars and cash if the suspect is unable to prove those itemswere purchased with legitimate income. The statute was a key component of Gov. William Donald Schaefer's 1989 anti-drug package.
"You're not seeing much of a change because the law isn't all that much of a change," said Harford County State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly, who lobbied hard for a state forfeiture statute and then became a leading critic of last year's effort by the General Assembly.
The legislators "voted for it so they could go home and tell everyone they supported the governor's anti-drug package, but they didn't do what needed to be done," Cassilly said.
The law was described as a means of separating drug dealers from their profits.
Prosecutors, however, have used the law less than half a dozen times in the statute's first year to confiscate real estate from suspected traffickers. In Baltimore and Prince George's County, the two areas with the most acute drug problems, the state has moved to seize real estate twice.
"There hasn't been any dramatic difference under the new law," said James Pyne, a prosecutor with the investigations division of the Baltimore County State's Attorney's Office.
Cassilly said the legislature did not provide any money to enable prosecutors and county solicitors to staff, train and equip forfeiture units that could concentrate on building such cases. Prosecutors said such a unit would more than pay for itself through seized assets.
In Baltimore, where the prosecutor's office is already strained by a heavy caseload, authorities are seeking a grant from the federal Office of Justice Assistance for the city's fledgling forfeiture unit, said Deputy State's Attorney Pat Jessamy.
Similar federal statutes return the assets seized from drug suspects to the investigating law enforcement agency, creating an incentive for continued forfeiture efforts, Cassilly said. In Maryland, however, the seized assets are returned to the state's general fund.
Several technical points also limit the law's effectiveness. For example, in the case of property owned jointly by a husband and wife, Maryland legislators were unwilling to allow forfeiture of a drug trafficker's primary residence unless both husband and wife were convicted of drug charges.
More stringent than the federal forfeiture statute, the state law's requirements have made the seizure of some properties difficult. Similarly, the state law requires a more elaborate notification and legal advertisement process.
"It's costly and unnecessary," Cassilly said. "There's no need for a lot of it."
Authorities also attribute the relative lack of forfeiture cases undertaken to the fact that many prosecutors and police investigators are still learning how to use it.
"We haven't filed anything yet," Pyne said. "We've been waiting for the right case with the right piece of property to come along."
Pyne said the kind of drug case capable of producing a good forfeiture suit is also the kind of case likely to be prosecuted federally. Prolonged, detailed investigations often require the manpower and money of the federal drug enforcement agencies, yet those are the cases in which investigators are more likely to identify a drug dealer's assets.
Consequently, many of the more promising forfeiture cases continue to be filed in U.S. District Court, where the seized assets from joint investigations are shared by federal and local police agencies.
More than $4.8 million in assets was forfeited in Maryland's federal court in the fiscal year that ended last September. Between then and May 1, $3.9 million has been forfeited, said G.G. Gordon, an assistant U.S. attorney and chief of the forfeiture unit.