California Sheriff, US DOJ Sued For Seizures Of Cash Generated By Legal Pot Businesses

from the putting-the-'joint'-back-in-'joint-task-force' dept

A lawsuit filed against both California and federal law enforcement agencies claims the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department is exploiting the disagreement between state and federal marijuana laws to stop and seize cash being transported from legal marijuana dispensaries.

Marijuana is legal in many forms in multiple states. Unfortunately, the federal government has yet to legalize marijuana in any form, putting purveyors of legal products at risk of being prosecuted by the federal government despite their adherence to local laws.

Empyreal — a cash transport business — has experienced the SBSD’s abuse firsthand on multiple occasions.

The driver of an armored car carrying $712,000 in cash from 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 interrogated him, seized the money and turned it over to the FBI.

A few weeks later, deputies stopped the same driver in Rancho Cucamonga, took an additional $350,000 belonging to legal pot stores and gave that cash to the FBI too.

The transport company says it complies with all federal laws pertaining to handling of cash generated by legal pot businesses — something that is supposed to allow the cash to travel unmolested to banks willing to handle this cash. The banks also have to perform their own due diligence, which encompasses those entrusted with moving the cash from businesses to banks and vice versa.

Despite everything being on the apparent up-and-up, this particular sheriff thinks his department is doing the right thing by targeting vehicles officers can safely assume are full of cash and walking away with that cash while mumbling things about drug trafficking and money laundering. The department also sends out drug dogs to guarantee deputies have “permission” to perform warrantless searches, since it’s highly likely proceeds from marijuana businesses will smell like marijuana.

(On top of that, a large percentage of cash in circulation contains trace amounts of drugs, which would logically be detected by drug dogs. This should be seen as evidence of nothing more than a bill being in circulation, but cops pretend it means the cash could only have come from drug sales. It’s all extremely — and conveniently — stupid.)

San Bernardino Sheriff Shannon Dicus (one of the defendants in Empyreal’s lawsuit) and his department are some of the main beneficiaries of cash seized during operations like these — ones that involve federal agents to sidestep local marijuana legalization laws and ensure the retention of a majority of every dollar seized. That’s because his department heads the Inland Regional Narcotics Enforcement Team (IRNET). IRNET’s relationship to federally adopted forfeitures is extremely profitable.

Through the U.S. Department of Justice’s equitable sharing program, the Sheriff’s Department’s participation in IRNET enables it to receive up to 80% of the proceeds recovered from civil forfeitures, he said.

IRNET has obtained nearly $18 million in equitable sharing funds since 2016, according to the Department of Justice.

If these seizures were made without federal adoption, they’d be illegal. But with the FBI’s help, the Sheriff’s Department can continue to make millions a year by taking legally earned cash from cash transport trucks.

All this adds up to a suin’, one being handled by the Institute of Justice, which has been instrumental in securing dozens of returns of property illegally seized by law enforcement. The lawsuit [PDF] notes that the San Bernardino sheriff isn’t alone in his targeting of Empyreal cash trucks. The same Dickinson County (KS) deputy, Kalen Robinson, stopped Empyreal drivers twice and seized over $165,000 during the second stop, turning it over to the DEA.

San Bernardino Sheriff Dicus hasn’t offered much in support of these stops and seizures — none of which were accompanied by citations or criminal charges. What he has offered is something that exists solely within the boundaries of pure speculation.

In response to the lawsuit over the armored cars, Dicus released a statement claiming 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 black-market cannabis.

“My deputies are professional, and I am confident we will prevail,” Dicus said.

No one’s doing any due diligence here, least of all Sheriff Dicus. His department isn’t researching dispensaries and targeting them with searches and criminal charges. Instead, his department has decided to do the easiest and most profitable thing: allow dispensaries to sell allegedly illegally grown marijuana and then take their cash once it’s conveniently located in the back of a transport van. This shows the department is far less interested in disrupting illegal drug sales and far more interested in profiting from illegal behavior it seemingly has no desire to stop.

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Comments on “California Sheriff, US DOJ Sued For Seizures Of Cash Generated By Legal Pot Businesses”

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33 Comments
This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

So… Now law enforcement has escalated their game from simple strong-arm robbery and other acts of what I grew up to believe was common street thuggery, to knocking over armored cars because they’re a convenient target. Using the same reasoning, how long will it take them before they move on to literal bank robbery because banks are stationary, and are therefore even more convenient than armored cars?

[Ponders a moment…] I guess it just depends upon how far qualified immunity can be stretched before it snaps like a rubber band that’s been left in the sun too long.

Anonymous Coward says:

Marijuana is legal in many forms in multiple states. Unfortunately, the federal government has yet to legalize marijuana in any form

…which means it is not legal in any states, per the Supremacy Clause of Article Six of the United States Constitution. That means when state and federal laws conflict, federal law takes precedence. Even over state constitutions.

Of course, the premise that the Commerce Clause can be used to address commerce—or lack of commerce—entirely within one state is Orwellian bullshit, although SCOTUS did uphold it. (Note that one’s thoughts could affect interstate commerce, and by the same logic as drugs could be regulated by federal law.)

BTW, the federal government has legalized marijuana in at least one form: the National Institute on Drug Abuse is authorized to provide cannabis for research purposes, and has contracted the University of Mississippi to grow it for them since 1974. (Nevermind that research applications seem to be arbitrarily rejected, and the DEA has been dragging their feet for 5+ years on applications for additional cultivators.)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Of course, the premise that the Commerce Clause can be used to address commerce—or lack of commerce—entirely within one state is Orwellian bullshit, although SCOTUS did uphold it. (Note that one’s thoughts could affect interstate commerce, and by the same logic as drugs could be regulated by federal law.)

They’ve been inconsistent on that point. When the Supreme Court heard testimony about Obamacare, that argument was raised and rejected. The Supreme Court declared the relevant parts of a Obamacare a tax and therefore constitutional.

However, prior to that ruling there was a ruling that supported this argument with marijuana distribution. The justification that intrastate commerce was also interstate commerce hinged on a single point: It was considered too difficult to determine if the marijuana in question ever crossed state lines.

At this point, it seems the line between interstate and intrastate hinges on how easily it’s proven that the commerce in question is strictly intrastate.

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

Anonymous Coward says:

The stoners at Techdirt are upset that federal law trumps state law, though they’re quick to defer to the feds when the state cases don’t go their way.

Don’t worry potheads, you’ll still be able to get your wacky terbacky and smell like dog sh1t as your dispensaries pay a token amount to the constabulary.

I think the whole thing is hilarious.

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

Rekrul says:

Maybe Empyreal should start sending out some empty trucks to make the sheriff’s department and feds waste their time.

As for the fact that cash having traces of drugs on it being used as "evidence" that it was involved in drug dealing, I’d love to see some agency come in and test all the money in the cops’ pockets. Then when most of it turns up traces of drugs, accuse them all of being drug dealers.

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