The driver of an armored car carrying $712,000 in cash from legal, licensed marijuana dispensaries was heading into Barstow on a Mojave Desert freeway in November when San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies pulled him over. They questioned the driver, seized the money and turned it over to the FBI, reports the Los Angeles Times.
A few weeks later, deputies — never ones to ignore easy cash — stopped the very same driver in Rancho Cucamonga. They then took an additional $350,000 belonging to legal licensed pot stores and gave that cash to the FBI for good measure.
Now, the FBI is trying to permanently confiscate the nearly $1.1-million bounty. It “might” even share the spoils with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department.
The FBI claims the money is tied to federal drug or money-laundering crimes. But the feds have specified no unlawful conduct and brought no criminal charges.
Federal Law Enforcement Abusing Forfeiture Laws
The cash seizures — and yet another from the same trucking company in Kansas — raise some serious red flags. Among the questions raised, are whether the Justice Department is moving to disrupt the operations of licensed marijuana businesses in California and other states where pot is legal. Even the possibility of rogue elements within the DOJ and the DEA, in fact, has reared its ugly head.
The case has given new life to allegations that federal law enforcement agencies in Southern California have been abusing forfeiture laws. They do so by seizing cash and valuables from people when the government has no evidence that they committed any crimes.
The FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office in Los Angeles was forced to return tens of millions of dollars in cash and valuables seized by federal agents last March from hundreds of safe deposit boxes in Beverly Hills. The government produced no evidence to back up its claims that the money and goods were criminal proceeds. Some of that money belonged to owners of legal, state-licensed marijuana businesses.
Empyreal Seeks Emergency Order
Judge John W. Holcomb of U.S. District Court in Riverside is now weighing a request by Empyreal Logistics. That’s the company whose armored cars were ransacked in California and Kansas.
Empyreal wants an emergency order to force the FBI and the Sheriff’s Department to stop pulling over its vehicles and seizing cash with no evidence of lawbreaking. The company is also trying to get back its cash.
Empyreal says it follows U.S. Treasury Department guidelines on how to handle the cash of state-licensed marijuana businesses without running afoul of federal law. Empyreal verifies that the dispensaries whose money it carries are in good standing with state regulators.
The company’s lawsuit describes the traffic stops of their trucks as “highway robberies” by government agents. Empyreal says federal law enforcement agents are trying to pad their budgets with forfeiture money.
None of Empyreal’s drivers ever got so much as a traffic citation in the cases. That’s pretty interesting, since traffic violations were the claimed reasons for pulling them over, in the first place.
“Among The More Egregious Forfeiture Cases We’ve Ever Seen”
“This is among the more egregious forfeiture cases that we’ve ever seen,” said Dan Alban, senior attorney at the Institute for Justice. The Institute, a libertarian group, fights forfeiture abuse nationwide and represents Empyreal in its lawsuit.
Alban called the cash seizures a “very cynical attempt to exploit the differences between federal and state law” on Cannabis.
Possession and sale of weed remains illegal under federal law. But 36 states have legalized medical marijuana, and 18 allow adult-use Cannabis.
A DOJ spokesperson didn’t respond to repeated questions on whether the Biden Administration’s policies allow cash seizures from legal businesses licensed to sell marijuana.
Empyreal Also Goes After San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department
Empyreal accuses the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department of breaking a California law protecting financial institutions serving legal weed dispensaries. It also alleges that the FBI and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration violated a federal law that bars spending government money to interfere with medical marijuana businesses in states where they are legal.
According to Empyreal, seven of the eight state-permitted dispensaries whose cash was taken in San Bernardino County were licensed to sell medical marijuana.
The Sheriff’s Department and federal authorities deny wrongdoing, claiming Empyreal is seeking a court injunction that would improperly impede active criminal investigations. They claim they’re investigating ”suspected money laundering and illegal drug sales,” in what sounds suspiciously like a fishing expedition.
Federal Prosecutions Rare In Cali Since 2013
Federal prosecutions of marijuana crimes have been rare in California since 2013. That’s when a memo by then-Deputy Atty. Gen. James M. Cole advised U.S. attorneys in states that have legalized weed to bypass all but the most serious cases. Federal agents now focus on cases such as those involving gangs or cartels.
The Trump administration, trying to fire the War On Weed back up to consolidate more power, rescinded the Cole memo. But federal prosecutors in California are still reluctant to bring Cannabis cases before juries accustomed to and comfortable with widespread pot smoking.
Black-market marijuana in California is untaxed, unburdened by environmental regulations and cheaper than legal Cannabis. As such, it has continued to thrive in the five years since the Golden State legalized adult-use weed. And San Bernardino County Sheriff Shannon Dicus has been busily cracking down on “illegal farming” in the High Desert.
400,000 Plants Seized In 5 Months; 527 Arrested
In the five months since the Sheriff launched Operation Hammer Strike, deputies claim they have seized more than 400,000 cannabis plants and arrested 527 suspects.
In response to the lawsuit over the armored cars, Dicus claimed that more than 80% of the marijuana sold in licensed dispensaries is “grown illegally.” But he provided no evidence that any of the eight businesses whose cash deputies seized from Empyreal’s vans were selling untaxed cannabis.
“My deputies are professional, and I am confident we will prevail,” Dicus claimed.