An 86-acre farm in Frederick County seized in one of the county's largest marijuana raids was auctioned yesterday, marking the first use of a new Maryland law that allows the state to confiscate and sell land used to facilitate narcotic offenses.
The law, which went into effect last summer, significantly expands the state's authority to seize land in drug cases.
While Maryland drug enforcement authorities routinely seized personal property such as cars, cash and jewlery, they had a difficult time seizing real property -- houses and land -- because they had to prove it had been bought with drug proceeds. Such proof was almost impossible to trace, according to Assistant Attorney General Betty Stemley.
Now, with the new statute, prosecutors can confiscate real estate if they can prove that the property was used in a drug operation.
State drug enforcement authorities said they hope the law will provide an additional deterrent to drug dealers and manufacturers.
"The new law conveys the message to drug dealers that the risks of what they have to lose far outweigh any gain," said Scott Rolle, assistant state's attorney for Frederick County. "By taking a piece of property, you drain the people involved of everything: their freedom, property, assets . . . everything."
The farm, in a heavily wooded area along John Kline Road in the Wolfsville area of Frederick County, was bought by Walter and Virginia Humphreys of Mount Airy, Md., for $172,000. Sold in a public auction in front of the Frederick County Courthouse, the property included a two-story log cabin with a hot tub and outdoor deck, and a barn. Rolle estimated its value at $250,000.
After the state pays off the $30,000 lien on the property, proceeds from the sale will go into the state's general revenue fund, Rolle said.
The farm was raided by the Maryland State Police last August when a National Guard helicopter patrol spotted several plots of marijuana plants.
"This was probably the most sophisticated marijuana operation we've found in the county," said Deputy State's Attorney Donald R. Grossnickle.
Police found 162 marijuana plants, many as tall as six feet, growing in seven garden plots. A drying chamber with a dehumidifier and racks was discovered behind stacks of hay in the barn behind the house, according to State Police Cpl. Paul Gerstner, who participated in the raid. Gerstner said the marijuana had a street value of about $500,000.
Michael R. Hotz, 41, was arrested and pleaded guilty to a felony charge of manufacturing marijuana in Frederick County Circuit Court. He will be sentenced Aug. 21 and faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $15,000 fine. State prosecutors are recommending that Hotz get a five-year suspended sentence with nine months in jail. They are also recommending that Hotz not be fined because he forfeited such a large amount of land.
According to police, Hotz remains free on bond and is living in Washington.
Virginia, District and federal forfeiture laws have allowed drug enforcement authorities in those jurisdictions to seize real property used to facilitate drug activities since the mid-1980s.