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SB sheriff must return unfairly seized money

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A little sanity has prevailed in the dispute between a Pennsylvania-based armored car company, Empyreal Logistics, and the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department. Deputies seized $1.1 million that the company was transporting for legal marijuana companies in three highway stops between November and January. The department intended to keep most of the money for itself.

Fortunately, the U.S. Department of Justice agreed last week to return the cash to its rightful owners, although Sheriff Shannon Dicus hasn’t backed away from his unsubstantiated allegations against Empyreal and the marijuana firms. Thievery is upsetting enough, but it’s particularly aggravating when it’s done under the color of authority.

The issue centers on “civil-asset forfeiture.” During the 1980s, the federal Justice Department concocted this policy to seize assets of major drug dealers to battle drug trafficking. That office’s early directors, John Yoder and Brad Cates, noted in 2014 that, “the tactic has turned into an evil itself, with the corruption it engendered among … law enforcement coming to clearly outweigh any benefits.”

The San Bernardino heist — complete with deputies allegedly hassling drivers and damaging their trucks — is the most obscene recent example of what Yoder and Cates were describing. In this case, the sheriff’s department rather than the cannabis firms seems to be the scofflaw.

In California, the sale of recreational and medical marijuana is legal. State law also generally requires that sheriffs and district attorneys secure an underlying conviction — e.g., proving that a person’s cash came from illegal activity — before seizing property. California sheriffs, however, have embraced a disreputable work around. They partner with the feds through the “equitable sharing” program.

Sheriffs are able to conduct raids in concert with a federal agency and then operate under loose federal standards that require no such conviction. Then they split the loot, with the local agency receiving 80 percent of the proceeds. By the way, a federal law forbids the feds from interfering with state-approved dispensaries.

The underlying problem — beyond the greed of police agencies, which put profit above justice — is that the feds continue to consider marijuana a Schedule I narcotic that’s no different than heroin. Nevertheless, 37 states allow the legal sale of some form of marijuana (either recreational or medical), so there’s continuing legal tension.

Enterprising sheriffs’ offices exploit that gray area. Dicus claims, “80 percent of marijuana at dispensaries was grown illegally.” He also accuses Empyreal of attempting to “interfere with ongoing criminal investigations.” Sheriffs often make wild allegations, but in this country the government is supposed to prove them before pilfering private property.

In exchange for the repayment, the company dropped its federal lawsuit. It continues its action against San Bernardino to force it to change its policies. In reality, those policies have nothing to do with public safety. Empyreal rightly claims that it serves as a partner to financial institutions and law enforcement, as it transports legally traceable marijuana proceeds.

Asset forfeiture abuses are rampant throughout the country, with police taking the cars and cash of lower-income people — and then forcing them to go through a costly legal process to try to get it back. It is indeed an evil. Unfortunately, the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department doesn’t understand that such behavior is not only unjust, but undermines public trust in law enforcement.

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