Asset Forfeiture

RSS Feed for this category

Chronicle AM -- January 10, 2014

The marijuana issue continues hot and heavy, one of our favorite authors is nominated for an award, harm reduction bills move in Wisconsin, and the US Sentencing Commission wants to cut drug sentences. And more. Let's get to it:

Dr. Carl Hart, nominated for an NAACP Image Award for "High Price" (columbia.edu)
Marijuana Policy

Colorado Legal Marijuana Sales Hit $5 Million in First Week. Sales of legal marijuana in Colorado since January 1 are estimated to have exceeded $5 million, with some 100,000 people lining up to buy it, according to industry insiders.

Colorado Republicans File Bill to Ban Food Stamps in Marijuana Shops. File under: solutions in search of problems. There is no evidence that anyone has ever used a food stamp EBT card to purchase marijuana products, but that hasn't stopped a handful of GOP state legislators to file a bill to outlaw it. "We need this bill, if for nothing else, as a statement," said Rep. Jared Wright (R-Grand Junction). "We shouldn't be enabling anyone to buy a substance that is banned under federal law. It's not a good use of taxpayer money," he said. The bill is Senate Bill 37.

New Hampshire House Didn't Vote on Marijuana Legalization. The House was set to vote Wednesday on a bill to legalize marijuana, but it didn't happen. The vote has instead been pushed back for a week as legislators dealt first with attempts to override vetoes on bills passed last year. The bill is House Bill 492.

No Marijuana Legalization Bill for Ohio This Year. The only Ohio legislator to push for marijuana legalization last year won't try it again this year. Rep. Bob Hagan (D-Youngstown) said he had no plans to introduce a measure this year after last year's effort to pass a resolution to let residents vote on the issue was sidelined.

Washington Congressman Urges Feds to Act Quickly on Marijuana Banking. Rep. Denny Heck (D-Washington) Friday called on federal regulators to move swiftly to resolve the issue of financial institutions being able to do business with legal marijuana businesses. In a statement, the coauthor of pending federal legislation that would do just that said that "it is urgent federal regulators come to a resolution on this issue as soon as possible."

Powerful Maryland Pol Comes Out for Marijuana Legalization. Delegate Maggie McIntosh (D-Baltimore) has joined the list of powerful state legislators calling for marijuana legalization. She said legalization is one of "the biggest, most important issues" facing the General Assembly this year. She joins Senate President Thomas Miller (D) and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Heather Mizeur in supporting legalization, but Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and House Speaker Michael Busch (D) both oppose it.

Steny Hoyer Opposes Marijuana Legalization in Maryland. US House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said Thursday he opposes legalizing pot in the state. "I'm not a proponent of legalizing marijuana," he said. "As I talked to people who deal with drug abuse issues, with rehabilitation issues, I became convinced that marijuana was, in fact, a threshold drug and it would lead to the use of harder, very harmful drugs," he added.

Medical Marijuana

Kentucky House Panel Holds Medical Marijuana Hearing. The House Health and Welfare Committee held a hearing Thursday to discuss medical marijuana. No specific bill was under discussion, but one legislator, Sen. Perry Clark (D-Louisville) filed a bill this week, Senate Bill 43, which would legalize medical marijuana.

Florida House Committee Chair Will Propose Bill to Legalize High CBD Strains for Seizures. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Shalimar), chair of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, said Thursday he would introduce a bill to allow for the medical use of marijuana strains that are high in CBDs. The vow came after a heart-wrenching hearing from parents of children who suffer seizure disorders, who called on the legislature to legalize strains such as "Charlotte's Web."

Asset Forfeiture

Utah Attorney General Sees Asset Forfeiture as Tool against Drug Legalizing Attorneys. After changes to undo asset forfeiture reforms approved by voters in 2000 snuck through the state legislature last year came under this week, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes issued a brief defending the new law. But a bullet point justifying a new cap on attorneys' fees for people who successfully defend their property is setting off alarms among First Amendment advocates. "By setting a limit on attorney's fees it will take away the incentive for attorneys who actively promote the legalization of drugs in the state of Utah from soliciting clients who are engaged in criminal activity," the attorney general's brief said. Click on the link for a lengthier critique.

Drug Testing

Welfare Drug Testing Bill Coming Back in Indiana. House Speaker Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis) said Thursday that while welfare drug testing legislation is not part of the House Republican agenda, a pending bill to do just that is "one we're going to enthusiastically endorse and move forward on." The bill, which passed the House, but not the Senate, last year, would require drug testing of welfare recipients based on some form of reasonable suspicion.

Harm Reduction

Push On to End Needle Exchange Ban in Federal Funding Bill. Harm reduction and public health advocates are urging lawmakers to lift the prohibition on the use of federal funds to pay for needle exchange programs. The battlefield is the conference committee that will reconcile House and Senate budget bills. The Senate version had language that included funding for needle exchanges, but the GOP-led House is expected to oppose it.

Wisconsin Overdose 911, Naloxone Bills Pass Assembly Committee. A bill to provide limited legal immunity to people who notify authorities of an overdose passed the Assembly Criminal Justice Committee Thursday. So did a bill that would allow first responders to carry and use the overdose reversal drug naloxone. Both now goes to the full Assembly, which should vote on them Tuesday. The bills have the backing of Attorney General JB Van Hollen (R) and are expected to sail through the Senate as well.

Honors

Carl Hart Wins NAACP Image Award Nomination for "High Price." Neuroscientist and Drug Policy Alliance board member Carl Hart's "High Price: A Neuroscientist's Journey of Self Discovery That Changes Everything You Know About Drugs and Society" has been nominated for an NAACP Image Award in the category of literary nonfiction. The awards ceremony takes place on February 22.

Sentencing

US Sentencing Commission Suggests Lowering Drug Guideline Sentences. The US Sentencing Commission voted Thursday to publish proposed federal drug sentencing guideline amendments that would include lowering guideline sentences for drug trafficking offenses. The amendments would reduce drug trafficking sentences by about 11 months, leading to a reduction in the federal prison population of more than 6,000 prisoners five years after taking effect. The commission is now seeking public comment on the proposal.

International

Jamaica Marijuana Growers to Organize. Jamaican legalization activists and marijuana growers will form a Cannabis Future Growers and Producers Association as part of a major conference next week. The "Going Forward -- Legalize It" conference is organized by the Ganja Law Reform Coalition, the Cannabis Commercial and Medicinal Research Task Force, and the National Alliance for the Legalization of Ganja, and hopes to help lay the groundwork for a legal marijuana industry on the island.

Canada's SensibleBC Sees 2014 as a Building Year. After an effort to put marijuana reform on the provincial ballot via an initiative faltered last year, Sensible BC leader Dana Larsen said this year would be a year of building momentum, training canvassers, and spreading the message of marijuana legalization. Larsen will also be touring the province this spring and summer to build support.

Chronicle AM -- December 23, 2013

The marijuana court judge was drunk, Dread Pirate Roberts wants his bitcoins back, Beto O'Rourke wants the Border Patrol to answer some questions, Rand Paul and Cory Booker tweet policy, and more. Let's get to it:

Marijuana Policy

Florida "Marijuana Court" Judge Comes to Work Drunk. Florida Judge Gisele Pollack, who pioneered the notion of a "marijuana court," where misdemeanor pot offenders are steered toward treatment, showed up at work last Tuesday drunk out of her mind. When court staff tried to keep her off the bench, she responded, "Fuck you, you're fired." She was also reportedly screaming and crying as she demanded that her car keys be returned to her. She later told reporters she would be off for two weeks in "an intense outpatient program."

Medical Marijuana

Florida Signature-Gatherers Held Day of Action Saturday. Organizers for the campaign to put a medical marijuana initiative on the Florida ballot held a "Day of Action" Saturday as their effort heads into its final weeks. Supporters set up locations in 14 cities, including Daytona Beach and Orlando, where volunteers picked up and dropped off petitions. They need 700,000 to make the ballot, but are seeking to gather one million to have a cushion.

Asset Forfeiture

Silk Road's Dread Pirate Roberts Wants His Bitcoins Back. Ross Ulbricht, also known online as the Dread Pirate Roberts, is asking the federal government to return more than $30 million worth of bitcoins it seized after it shut down his Silk Road web site for allowing visitors to buy and sell illegal drugs and other contraband. Ulbricht argues in a legal filing that the currency should be returned because it isn't subject to civil forfeiture rules.

Law Enforcement

Beto O'Rourke Calls for Investigation into Heavy-Handed Border Drug Searches. US Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX) is calling for an investigation into border drug search practices after, in the latest border search scandal, a New Mexico woman is suing after having been subjected to body cavity searches, including anal and vaginal probes while crossing into El Paso from Mexico. "Recent allegations brought against CBP for extreme and illegal searches are deeply troubling and, if true, completely unacceptable," O'Rourke said. "Individuals do not waive their constitutional or human rights simply because they choose to cross one of our international bridges. The war on drugs cannot be an excuse for sexual assault under the color of legal authority. Constitutional limits exist so that the rights of our citizens are protected and the government does not deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law," O'Rourke said. "CBP has a responsibility to ensure that all persons entering into our country are treated humanely and in accordance with our laws."

Sentencing Reform

Paul-Booker Tweet Fest Could Be Harbinger of Reform Alliance Next Year. Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) engaged in a Twitter exchange today that could augur cooperation on moving forward with sentencing reform and marijuana and hemp legalization next year. Both are among the highest-profile senators seeking sentencing reform. Read the exchange at the link.

International

A Thousand Rally for Marijuana Legalization in Tel Aviv. More than a thousand people rallied in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square Saturday night in favor of marijuana legalization and easing restrictions on medical marijuana. Likud lawmaker Moshe Feiglin and Meretz lawmaker Tamar Zandberg have proposed a bill that would legalize marijuana and ease access to it for medical use.

Costa Rica Presidential Candidates Not Keen On Marijuana Legalization. Costa Rica's two leading presidential candidates have said they do not support the full legalization of marijuana in Costa Rica. Proponents of medical marijuana, however, might glean some hope from the candidates' responses. Front-runners Johnny Araya of the National Liberation Party and Jose Maria Villalta of the Broad Front are lukewarm at best on marijuana reform. Araya said "I'm against legalizing marijuana in Costa Rica," while Villalta, while not endorsing legalization, at least called for "a broad national dialogue" on the issue.

Chronicle AM -- December 20, 2013

A pair of state appeals courts slap down cops who take people's medicine and won't give it back, there are problems with Kansas' drug testing law, Peru is buying shining new toys to prosecute its drug war, and more. Let's get to it:

Hash is medicine, and the cops have to give it back, the Oregon appeals court ruled. (wikimedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

DPA California Initiative Revised. The Control, Regulate and Tax Marijuana initiative, filed earlier this month by the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), has been revised. The new version increases the personal grow limit from four plants to six, makes the 1,000-foot buffer rule around schools optional instead of mandatory, and makes the California Industrial Hemp effectively immediately. Left intact were no changes in criminal penalties, no changes in the state's medical marijuana law, and a 25% tax on adult retail sales. DPA head Ethan Nadelmann said in a conference call yesterday that the group would decide early next year whether to move forward for 2014.

Medical Marijuana

Oregon Appeals Court Rules Cops Must Give Back Seized Medical Hash. The Oregon Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday in Oregon v. James Jonathan Ellis that a medical marijuana patient whose hash was seized during an arrest can get it back. A district court judge had refused to order it returned, finding that hash wasn't covered under the state's medical marijuana law, but the appeals court disagreed, citing the federal Controlled Substances Act's definition of marijuana, which Oregon's law adopted, and which includes "every compound, manufacture, salt, derivative, mixture, or preparation of the plant or its resin."

Colorado Appeals Court Rules Cops Must Give Back Seized Medical Marijuana. The Colorado Court of Appeals ruled Thursday in Colorado v. Robert Clyde Crouse that a district court judgment ordering Colorado Springs Police to return marijuana seized from leukemia patient Crouse was correct. Colorado Springs authorities had argued that federal drug laws preempted their returning Crouse's medicine, but neither the district court nor the appeals court was buying it.

Wyoming Legislator to Introduce Medical Marijuana Bill. Rep. Sue Wallis (R-Recluse) said this week that she intends to introduce a bill in the legislative session that starts early next year to allow the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. Wallis said the death a year ago of her husband, Rod McQueary, brought the issue of legalizing medical marijuana into sharp focus for her. She said he benefited greatly from medical marijuana from Colorado in his last days.

Asset Forfeiture

Michigan Legislator Introduces Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill. Rep. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) has introduced a bill, House Bill 5213,that would prohibit civil asset forfeiture unless and until a person is convicted of a criminal offense. "Asset forfeiture was sold as a needed tool for law enforcement to attack drug kingpins and gang leaders," Rep. Irwin said. "[But] too often, law enforcement uses the current asset forfeiture law to take tens of millions of dollars every year, mostly from low-level users and small-time dealers. We need to change how asset forfeiture works. By requiring a person be convicted of a crime before their seized property is subject to forfeiture, we will stop the worst abuses and curtail the insidious incentives that lead some law enforcement to short circuit due process and the fundamental principle that a person is innocent until proven guilty."

Drug Testing

Kansas Drug Testing Law Punishes Welfare Recipients, But Lets Lawmakers Skate. The Kansas legislature this year passed a bill, Senate Bill 149, that allows for drug testing of welfare recipients. Amid charges of hypocrisy, solons added language to include drug testing of themselves. But Wednesday, the director of Legislative Administrative Services, who is charged with implementing legislator testing, told legislative leaders that the law does not include any ramifications for a positive drug test and does not explicitly make the results public, so he will be treating them as confidential medical records.

Sentencing

Connecticut Sentencing Commission Recommends Cutting Drug-Free Zones. The Connecticut Sentencing Commission recommended Thursday that lawmakers sharply curtail drug-free zones around schools. The commission said they created racial disparities, unfairly affecting blacks and Latinos, who are more likely to dwell in urban areas, where schools and day cares are more densely packed. The commission recommended scaling the zones back from 1,500 feet to 200 feet. It also recommended limiting drug-free zone charges to those actually intending to infringe on the zones, as opposed to those just passing through.

International

Peru in Half-Billion Dollar Deal to Buy Russian Helicopters for Anti-Drug, Anti-Terrorism Effort. The Peruvian and Russian governments announced a deal Wednesday in which Russia will provide 24 Mi-171 helicopters to the Peruvian armed forces. The Peruvians plan to use them for anti-narcotics and anti-terrorism work in the central mountain areas where coca leaf and cocaine production are widespread.

Belgian Cannabis Social Club Raided. Belgian police acting on orders of the Justice Ministry raided the country's second cannabis club Wednesday (sorry, link in Dutch only). Raiders hit the Mambo Social Club in Hasselt, which follows the country's one-plant-per-person guidelines, seizing plants, records, and computer equipment. No word yet on any criminal charges.

Chronicle AM -- December 10, 2013

African-American faith leaders observe International Human Rights Day by calling for an end to the drug war and mass incarceration, Texans are ready for criminal justice reform, and Mexico's prohibition-related violence continues apace. And more. Let's get to it:

African American faith leaders called Tuesday for an end to the drug war and mass incarceration. (sdpconference.info)
Medical Marijuana

Michigan Medical Marijuana Bills Pass House Committee. A pair of bills that would allow for the use of medical marijuana-infused products, as well as legalizing dispensaries for cannabis, passed the House Judiciary committee Tuesday morning on unanimous votes. A third bill, which would allow pharmacies to produce and sell medical marijuana, also passed, but on an 8-1 vote. With the legislature adjourning for the year Thursday, it's unlikely they will get final votes before then.

Law Enforcement

California Appeals Court Rules Only Prosecutors -- Not Police -- Can Initiate Asset Forfeiture Proceedings. California's 5th District Court of Appeals in Fresno ruled last week that police agencies cannot initiate asset forfeiture proceedings, which must instead be undertaken by prosecutors. Police had seized $16,000 in cash from Adolfo Cuevas and a friend sitting in a car and moved to forfeit it when traces of methamphetamine were found on a $5 bill. Only prosecutors can make that call, the court held. The case is Cuevas v. Superior Court of Tulare County.

Pain Pills

American College of Physicians Calls for Pain Med Contracts, Database, Educational Programs. In a policy paper released Tuesday, Prescription Drug Abuse, the American College of Physicians set out 10 policy positions and recommendations aimed at reducing "the significant human and financial costs related to prescription drug abuse." They include supporting a national prescription drug monitoring program, more education and prevention efforts for doctors and patients, and considering the use of written agreements ("pain contracts") for doctors and patients when treating pain. [Ed: Patient advocates often regard databases and pain contracts with suspicion. We commonly receive reports about pain contracts in particular having a chilling effect on the availability of pain medication for patients who need it. It is not clear whether this paper fully considers the plight commonly suffered by pain patients because of the war on drugs.]

Sentencing

On International Human Rights Day, Black Leaders Call for End to Drug War, Mass Incarceration. The Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, a major grouping of African-American faith leaders, called for an end to the war on drugs and mass incarceration Tuesday, International Human Rights Day. The call came as the group released key findings from a series of community-based hearings on mass incarceration it has held around the nation. Click on the link for the recommendations.

Poll: Texans Ready to Reform Drug Punishments. A poll released Monday by the Texas Public Policy Foundation finds that nearly four out five (79%) Texans support drug treatment instead of prison for people caught possessing drugs. The poll also found overwhelming (84%) support for broader criminal justice reforms in the state.

International

Mexican Drug War Deaths Show No Decline. One year after Enrique Pena Nieto assumed office as president of Mexico, the deadly prohibition-related violence that has plagued the country for the past six years shows no sign of abating. According to Frontera NorteSur, citing Mexican press reports, there were 19,016 people killed in the drug violence in the first 11 months of Pena Nieto's term, compared to 18,161 during the last 11 months of Felipe Calderon's government. The violence also appears to have shifted geographically, from border states to states in the south and center of the country.

In Profit-Sharing Scheme, Oklahoma DA Used Contractor for Highway Drug Stops

An asset forfeiture scheme that utilized a private security contractor to stop vehicles on Interstate 40 in Caddo County, Oklahoma, has been shut down after garnering strong criticism. Caddo County District Attorney Jason Hicks suspended the stops earlier this month after getting a tongue-lashing from a local judge.

highway drug interdiction search (ncjtc.org)
Hicks got the bright idea of hiring the private security contractor Desert Snow LLC to do on-site training with his local drug task force. Desert Snow claims to have trained more than 30,000 police across the country in interdiction techniques. "Providing criminal and terrorist interdiction training since 1989,"it boasts on its web site, and "20+ years of high quality 'no nonsense' instruction in the pursuit of America's worst criminals."

But beyond paying the private operators to train police, the contract DA Hicks agreed to in January gave Desert Snow 25% of all assets seized during training days and 10% of all assets seized even on days the contractors were not present.

Hicks told The Oklahoman he hired the contractors "because his drug task force had little success on drug stops" and because "he hoped to make money for his office from the drug stops because of a loss of federal funds."

Stops were made on a stretch of I-40 in Caddo County, and on some occasions, no drug were found and no one was arrested, but police seized money anyway after claiming that a drug-sniffing dog had alerted. Desert Snow had earned $40,000 so far this year from its share of seizures and was in line to receive another $212,000 from an $850,000 seizure before the program blew up in its face.

Under Oklahoma law, asset forfeiture funds are to be split among law enforcement agencies that took part in the operation. But in the deal brokered with Desert Snow, the private contractor gets its cut off the top.

The sweet deal came to an end earlier this month at a hearing where a local judge learned that Desert Snow owner Joe David had pulled over a pregnant driver on I-40 and questioned her even though he is not a state-certified law enforcement officer. David was wearing a gun and possibly a shirt that said "POLICE" on the back, according to his testimony. The stop was one of 400 conducted over a five-day period with Desert Snow in February.

"I'm shocked," said Caddo County Special Judge David Stephens at a July 2 hearing. "For people to pull over people on I-40 without that license is shocking to me."

Stephens urged David not to do it again. "If you do, I hope to see you soon, wearing orange," he said, referring to the color of jail uniforms in Caddo County.

The pregnant woman and her passengers were found to be carrying 25 pound of pot, but the criminal charges against her have been dismissed. Her attorney, Al Hoch, called for reform of the state's asset forfeiture laws, saying seized money should go to the state general fund instead of directly to law enforcement.

"Law enforcement is supposed to be a public service function, not a for-profit enterprise," he said.

Those remarks were echoed by well-known Oklahoma defense attorney Irven Box, who is representing a Colorado man charged with marijuana possession after he was pulled over for a cracked windshield. Private companies shouldn't be getting paid with funds from drug stops they are involved in, he said.

"That at least gives the appearance that these seizures are done for profit and not to protect the citizens," Box said.

Anadarko, OK
United States

This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

Two Virginia top cops copped to drug corruption offenses this past week, and that's just for starters. There is more as well. Let's get to it:

In Halifax, Virginia, the former Halifax County sheriff pleaded guilty last Friday to ripping off drug task funds and asset forfeiture funds for his own personal use. Former Sheriff Stanley Noblin copped to five counts of embezzlement in connection with the thefts. According to prosecutors -- and uncontested by Noblin -- Noblin ripped off at least $48,500 from the department's asset forfeiture fund and $32,500 from the drug task force fund. He cited financial hardships. He will be sentenced in October.

In Milwaukee, a Milwaukee police officer pleaded guilty last Friday to conducting illegal strip searches of drug suspects. Officer Jack Knight, 32, also agreed to resign from the department. He is the second officer convicted in the case. Michael Vagnini was sentenced to 26 months in prison last month, and two other officers face similar charges and are scheduled for trials. Vagnini appears to have been the active perpetrator of the strip searches, which included rectal probes, but the other three officers are being charged because their presence without objection asserted to victims that they were not free to leave and had to consent to the searches. Some of the victims have now filed a civil rights lawsuit against the department and individual officers.

In Abingdon, Virginia, the former Marion police chief pleaded guilty Tuesday to dealing meth, cocaine, and pain pills. Michael Dean Roberts, 54, copped to one counts of conspiring to distribute controlled substances. He conceded selling at least 7,331 hydrocodone pills, 365 grams of methamphetamine, and small amounts of cocaine and oxycodone from 2006 through June. A confidential informant bought hydrocodone pills from the police chief on three separate occasions in May and June. Some of the drugs came from the department's evidence room. He's looking at up to 20 years in federal prison when he's sentenced in October.

In San Diego, a former Calexico-area Customs officer was sentenced last Tuesday to 12 years in federal prison for taking tens of thousands of dollars in bribes to allow drugs to be smuggled into the country. Oscar Osbaldo Ortiz-Martinez had been convicted of bribery and conspiracy to import controlled substances in September 2012 after he went down in a sting. Undercover agents and cooperating witnesses posed as drug traffickers seeking free entrée through Customs inspection lanes and paid Ortiz-Martinez $22,000 to clear the way. He also agreed to allow kilograms of cocaine through his lane in exchange for another $30,000 and 15 kilograms of meth, but was then busted.

In New York City, a former NYPD officer was sentenced last Friday to six months in prison for lying about a supposed drug deal he said he witnessed. Isaias Alicea had said he saw two men involved in a drug sale in the lobby of the Manhattanville Houses housing project, but surveillance video from the lobby that showed the two men never coming into contact with each other. The drug charge against the suspect was dropped, and Alicea was charged instead. Known as an aggressive cop with a lot of arrests, Alicea had earlier pleaded guilty to administrative charges of violating someone's constitutional rights by unlawfully entering and searching a Brooklyn home.

This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

If it weren't for crooked cops in the Land of Lincoln, this space would be blank this week. Instead, we have an Illinois corrupt cops twofer. Let's get to it:

In Caseyville, Illinois, the Caseyville police chief was arrested last Wednesday on charges he kept a seized drug vehicle for his own use. Chief JD Roth faces two felony counts of official misconduct, and prosecutors have told town officials to keep him away from criminal investigations because his lack of credibility would hurt cases. Casey had been suspended in March after village records showed he had not sold the seized 2003 Dodge Ram pickup, but instead kept it for his own personal use. To add insult to injury, Roth also billed the village $6,000 for maintenance for the truck.

In East St. Louis, Illinois, an East St. Louis police detective was indicted last Friday, one of seven people accused of operating a cocaine distribution ring. Detective Orlando "Monte" Ward is charged with possession and conspiracy to possess more than five kilograms of cocaine. The 12-year police veteran was being held in jail pending a bond hearing set for Wednesday.

Caswell Motel Case Marks a Victory Against Federal Forfeiture Abuse [FEATURE]

special to Drug War Chronicle by investigative journalist Clarence Walker, cwalkerinvestigate@gmail.com

In a major victory for property rights advocates, a federal judge in Massachusetts last week struck down a scheme by federal prosecutors to seize a motel owned by the Caswell family on rundown Main Street in Tewksbury. The ruling in US v. 434 Main Street, Tewksbury, Massachusetts should make it more difficult for the government to seize a person's property if third parties committed criminal offenses on that property without the property owner's knowledge.

The ruling reinforced longstanding complaints that the use of asset forfeiture statutes -- both federal and state -- is so broad as to be tantamount to an abuse of power. Under such laws, prosecutors file civil actions seeking to seize the property of accused criminals as the fruits of crime, but they often result in citizens being deprived of their property without ever being convicted of a crime, sometimes even without ever having been arrested.

"People better wake up to what's going on with the government taking property under this federal civil forfeiture law," said Russ Caswell, 69, longtime owner of the Caswell Motel. "I was never charged with a crime and I never participated in no drug crimes on my property," he told the Chronicle Sunday. "Neither did the police tell me that my business was a problem, plus we often reported to police about criminal activity on the premises, but they still tried to take my property. I am thankful to God and my attorneys that this nightmare is over."

The Caswell Motel isn't the Hilton -- like countless thousands of other low-end motels on gritty streets across the country, it offers rooms by the week, and its clientele includes itinerant construction workers, traveling salesmen, the just-up-from-homeless, and, yes, the occasional drug user or peddler.

US Attorney Carmen Ortiz had sought to seize the Motel Caswell from the Caswell family under the theory that the motel allegedly facilitated drug crimes. The government provided evidence of 15 drug-related incidents between 1994 and 2008, rousing US Magistrate Judith Dein to note tartly in her opinion that "it should be noted that during this 14 year period, the Motel Caswell rented out approximately 196,000 rooms."

Dein found that Caswell "did not know the guests involved in the drug crimes, did not know of their anticipated criminal behavior at the time they registered as guests, and did not know of the drug crimes while they were occurring."

The government argued that the Caswells had failed to cooperate with police to alleviate drug problems at the property, but Dein cited numerous examples of the motel's cooperation with Tewksbury Police, and also noted that "there is no contention in this case that anyone from the Caswell family has been involved in any criminal activity either at the Motel or elsewhere. It is undisputed that they are a law-abiding family. Mr. Caswell testified that he had never been charged with any crime in his life."

Then Dein blistered the prosecution.

"It is rather remarkable," she wrote, "in this court's view, for the Government to argue in this case that the Property owner should lose his property for failure to undertake some undefined steps in an effort to prevent crime, while putting on evidence that the police drove through the Property routinely, knew the Property owner's identity and that he lived next door to the Motel, and never contacted him in an effort to work together to control crime at the Property. No comparable cases have been cited by the parties, and none have been found. Having failed to notify Mr. Caswell that he had a significant problem, and having failed to take any steps to advise him on what to do, the Government's resolution of the crime problem should not be to simply take his Property."

The federal magistrate then flatly dismissed the government's case. "The Government has failed to meet its burden of establishing that the Motel is subject to forfeiture," Dein found. "In addition, this Court concludes that the Claimant has met his burden of proving that he is the innocent owner of the Property."

Attorneys and asset forfeiture critics applauded the decision. Darpana Sheth, a Virginia-based pro-bono attorney who assisted with the defense of the Caswell Motel called the verdict "very important" and said it could have wider implications if other judicial districts and lawyers pick up on it.

"This decision will make it tougher for the government to initiate forfeiture proceedings or file complaints based on the actions of third parties," she said.

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/scott-bullock.jpg
Scott Bullock (ij.org)
"This is a complete victory for the Caswell family and for the protection of private property rights," said attorney Scott Bullock, after Dein's ruling. Bullock, who represented the family, is a senior attorney for the Institute for Justice (IJ), a Virginia-based public interest law firm specializing in fighting federal and state forfeiture abuse nationwide.

Caswell definitely needed the Institute's help, his family's limited resources having been eaten up in earlier stages of their battle with a relentless federal prosecutor.
 

"After running out of money after spending over $100,000, my local attorney discovered the Institute for Justice on the Internet," said Caswell."Had it not been for the Institute representing me pro-bono, I would have lost the motel and my livelihood."

While the Institute is a bulwark of the fight against asset forfeiture abuses, it is perhaps best known for its David vs. Goliath victory over billionaire Donald Trump in an Atlantic City eminent domain case in the 1990s. In that case, the Institute successfully represented a property owner whose land Trump wanted for a parking lot for his casino and hotel, blocking Trump's plan and saving the property.

The Caswell Motel case also opened a window on unsavory practices around asset forfeiture and raised questions of "policing for profit." Although Caswell attorneys argued -- and the court agreed -- that the family had cooperated with police to alleviate the drug problem, someone tipped the DEA to a potential target. The property had an estimated value of between $1.5 million and $1.8 million. Through the federal asset forfeiture "Equitable Sharing Program," state and local law enforcement agencies involved would have received 80% of the value of the Caswell property, with the feds reaping the other 20%.

"What the government did amounted to a grab for quick cash under the guise of civil forfeiture," said attorney Larry Salzman, another IJ attorney.

The workings of the asset forfeiture machine were partially revealed in the deposition of Vincent Kelly, DEA Special Agent in the New England office asset forfeiture unit. He testified under oath that his job was to look for high-dollar property with no mortgage to be forfeited. Kelly explained clearly how he checked the Registry of Deeds "to find out who owns the property and how much equity is on the property." Then, the DEA would contact local police to see how many drug arrests or other serious crimes been committed on the property.

Kelly said it was DEA policy to deal only with property worth at least $50,000.00. With Caswell Motel's worth between $1.5 and $1.8 million dollars, it was ripe for forfeiture since many drug arrests had occurred there.

In another sign that the motel had been the target of selective prosecution, defense attorneys and the Lowell Sun also uncovered evidence that at one point, narcotic officers and police made more arrests on the premises of Walmart, IHop, and Home Depot, nearby businesses also located off I-95 on Main Street. From 2010-2012, the attorneys said 19 drug arrests were made at Caswell Motel, with 24 drug arrests on Walmart's premises, 14 at Home Depot and five each at Applebee's and Burger King. But those are all deep-pocketed corporations with legions of lawyers; the Caswell family and its motel was not.

The Caswell Motel case is only an especially egregious example of asset forfeiture abuses. For years, attorneys, community activists, and advocacy groups, such as Forfeiture Endangers Americans Rights (FEAR) and Americans for Forfeiture Reform have been fighting to reign in such prosecutorial misconduct, and some progress has been made.

Some states implemented higher burdens of proof for police to seize property or acted to reduce the incentive to police for profit by directing that all or some seized funds go to the state general fund or education fund -- not straight into police coffers. And some states require an actual conviction before civil asset forfeiture can proceed.

But facing increasingly tougher standards and regulations, state and local law enforcement have learned to hand their cases over to the feds, ensuring that the cops get their cut under the equitable sharing program, but in effect robbing state governments of funds that should have gone to them. According to a Cato Institute study, as of 2008, the Justice Department's forfeiture fund reached $3.1 billion, with less than 20% of property seized coming from cases where the owners were prosecuted.

At the federal level, things are a bit better than they used to be, but it clear that room for abuse still exists, as the Caswell case demonstrates. Prior to federal asset forfeiture reform legislation passed in 2000, seizures could be made on mere suspicion that the property was involved in a crime. Once that happened, the property owner had to prove by a "preponderance of evidence" that the property was not involved in a crime.

Ironically, it was the attempted seizure of another motel, the Red Carpet Inn in Houston, Texas, that helped lead the way to passage of the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000. In that case, the feds seized the motel in 1998, claiming it was a "drug haven."

Like Caswell, Red Carpet owner Jason Brice had complied with police by hiring security and allowing police to patrol his property, and had spent thousands of dollars to comply with law enforcement demands that the motel discourage drug dealing. But when Brice balked at raising room rates and then revoked permission for police to patrol the property, the feds moved in with a civil forfeiture claim. Brice won in court, but only after years of stress and hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorneys' fees.

Led by then Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL) and inspired by cases like that of the Red Carpet Inn, Congress finally acted in 2000, passing the first effort to rein in asset forfeiture abuse at the federal level. The reforms include the "innocent owner" defense that Caswell successfully used in its trial.

But the civil asset forfeiture machine that grew out of Ronald Reagan's 1980s drug war keeps on humming. When the Department of Justice's Asset Forfeiture Fund to split seized goods with local and state law enforcement started in 1986, it took in $93.7 million. Last year, it took in $1.5 billion. That is a real and continuing incentive to pervert policing in pursuit of profits.

"It's like stealing your property in a hold-up without a gun," summed up Russ Caswell. "It goes back to our founding fathers. What happened to me was so un-American."

Someone needs to tell US Attorney Ortiz, who has not yet given up the fight for the Caswell Motel. On Tuesday, her office said "we are weighing our options with respect to appeal." They have until March 15 to file, and until then, Russ Caswell and his motel still aren't in the clear.

Federal Magistrate Rules for Harborside Medical Marijuana Dispensary

A federal magistrate in Oakland Monday ruled that landlords for the Harborside Health Center cannot stop it from selling medical marijuana in their properties in the cities of Oakland and San Jose. Federal Magistrate Maria-Elena James issued an order blocking the landlords from forcing Harborside to close its doors.

Harborside is the world's largest medical marijuana dispensary, serving 108,000 registered patients at its two locations. It was targeted by federal prosecutors as part of their ongoing crackdown on medical marijuana providers in states where it is legal.

Federal prosecutors targeted Harborside by threatening its landlords with seizure of their properties. In a bid to fend off asset forfeiture actions, the two landlords went to federal court to try to stop Harborside from engaging in "any unlawful activity," which, under federal law, includes selling medical marijuana.

But Magistrate James ruled that the landlords had no right to pursue such an action under federal law and she challenged the landlords' claims that their property values would be harmed by the sale of medical marijuana. Harborside has operated at the Oakland property since 2006 and in San Jose since 2009.

"Any damage or threat of harm to the (properties) resulting from Harborside's operations would have occurred when Harborside began its operations at the Oakland and San Jose locations," she wrote. "There is nothing in the record indicating that Harborside's continued operation compromises the existence, value or title of either the Oakland or San Jose property. Any argument about the urgency of stopping Harborside's activities rings hollow."

Harborside was joined in court by the city of Oakland, which argued that the federal government has missed the statute of limitations in the case and that closing Harborside would create a public safety risk by creating a black market for formerly available medical marijuana. The court did not rule on the city's motion to immediately enjoin the federal government from shutting down Harborside, but set a date for more hearings on that issue.

"We are grateful that Judge James carefully considered the facts and arguments in the Harborside case, and decided to grant us our day in court," said Harborside executive director Steve DeAngelo. "We have always believed that a Bay Area jury will recognize the value that Harborside brings to the community, and refuse to allow the federal government to seize the properties where we are located. We look forward to proving our case in front of a jury, and continue to believe we will prevail. In the meantime, we ask the Department of Justice to immediately freeze enforcement actions against Harborside and any other cannabis providers acting in full compliance with state law. Our nation's law enforcement officers should concentrate on real crime."

Harborside isn't out of the legal woods yet, though. The federal effort to shut it down remains alive, even though the dispensary won this skirmish. It has stated repeatedly that it will fight the battle to the end, and on that score, at least, nothing has changed.

"We are gratified that Judge James listened to and analyzed the parties' arguments so thoroughly and has now rendered an opinion that will ensure Harborside has the right to present its case to a jury," said Harborside attorney Henry Wysocki. "Despite the government's efforts to shortcut the case, Harborside will now be able to fully defend itself at trial. That is all we had asked, and the court has now agreed. The stage is now set for a jury trial on the underlying issues of the litigation, which will probably take place in about one year."

Oakland, CA
United States

Medical Marijuana Update

Dispensary wars continue in California, a package of restrictive bills passes in Michigan, and DC's long-awaited dispensaries are a step closer to opening.

California

Last Tuesday, a Sacramento dispensary operator pleaded guilty to federal drug charges. Bryan Smith, 28, had operated R&R Wellness Center that was first raided by local law enforcement and then turned over to the feds to prosecute. He and his colleagues got caught with more than 400 marijuana plants and $256,000 in cash. He agreed to a sentence of not less than five years in federal prison.

Also last Tuesday, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan said the feds should back off from trying to run Harborside Health Center out of business. The statement came in court filings ahead of a court date set for Thursday.

Last Thursday, two Bakersfield dispensaries sued Kern County, claiming they spent a total of $99,000 to set up under state and local laws, only to have the county fine them $100,000 for doing it. A third dispensary sued earlier, seeking the return of $280,000 in fines.Kern County passed an ordinance in 2009 removing restrictions on where medical marijuana dispensaries could operate. Under the new ordinance, dispensaries could operate anywhere in unincorporated areas except within 1,000 feet of a school. But last year, the county adopted two new ordinances: one banning cultivation of medical marijuana, and the other banning marijuana collectives from unincorporated areas, to take effect 30 days after adoption. The dispensaries want the county to pay for changing the rules on them and they want an end to efforts to ban them.

Last Friday, Murrieta officials shut down the Diamond Star Remedies dispensary for alleged code violations. The dispensary owner, John Szwec, said he had applied for a business license but been denied. Two other dispensaries -- Cooperative Medical Group and Greenhouse Cannabis Club -- that attempted to operate in the city have also since shut their doors.

On Tuesday, LA city officials said a referendum to keep most of the city's dispensaries had enough signatures to go to the voters. The Medical Marijuana Collectives Initiative Ordinance awaits verification of signatures, which could happen as early as January 2. At that point the Clerk will forward the initiative to the City Council, which can vote to make it law, call a special election, or place the matter before voters during the next scheduled election, which is May 21.Another referendum that would allow only 128 dispensaries has already been approved for a vote.

Also on Tuesday, Yuba County supervisors gave final approval to a medical marijuana ordinance. Growing on less than an acre would be limited to 12 mature plants with no more than six growing outdoors, and no more than 18 plants overall. Supervisors and grower advocates said in the long run, the ordinance should push growing out of residential areas and into more rural ones.

Also on Tuesday, the California Supreme Court said it had taken up the appeal of a Temecula dispensary. In City of Temecula v. Cooperative Patients Services Inc., the Riverside-based Fourth District Court of Appeal, Division Two, followed its pattern of denying an appeal from the clinic and upholding the city's preliminary injunction against its operation. But unlike others cases from that court, the vote was 2-1.

Colorado

Last Friday, three dispensaries in the town of Dacono sued to stay open. They asked the Weld County District Court to block the city's ban of marijuana-related businesses. Without legal protection, all three will have to shut down at the beginning of the new year. The town council passed a ban in June, but a petition drive will bring the issue to a vote next year. But it won't enable the dispensaries to stay open in the meantime.

On Monday, a medical marijuana grower sued the Larimer County sheriff after his 42 plants were destroyed. Kaleb Young was arrested and his plants and equipment seized during a drug raid even though he was in compliance with state law and had paperwork to prove it. He was acquitted of all criminal charges last year. His attorney, Rob Corry, said he would ask for $5,000 for each destroyed plant, based on sheriffs' estimates of the plants' value when they were seized. "Typically, the agency will preserve the plants as they're required to do under the (Colorado) constitution," Corry said. "Here, they just straight-up cut them down and destroyed them."

Massachusetts

Last Wednesday, a medical marijuana evaluation company said it has lost its lease after its landlord received negative feedback from local residents and businesses. California-based CannaMed had announced two weeks earlier that they would open a Framingham office by mid-month, but the building's owner, Jumbo Capital Management, terminated the lease after receiving letters from other tenants objecting to CannaMed moving in.

Michigan

Last Friday, the state legislature passed a package of bills adding restrictions to the state's medical marijuana law. HB 4834 says that registry cards will expire after two years, HB 4856 requires medical marijuana to be transported in the trunk of a car, and HB 4851 puts new limits on when doctors can recommend medical marijuana. Gov. Snyder (R) is expected to sign them, and they will take effect April 1 if he does.

Montana

On Tuesday, federal prosecutors agreed to drop six of eight charges against Chris Williams, who was set to be sentenced to 85 years or more after being convicted of marijuana cultivation and gun charges. Under the deal, the federal government dropped convictions for conspiracy to manufacture and possess with the intent to distribute marijuana; manufacture of marijuana; possession with intent to distribute marijuana; and three counts of possessing a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. His convictions for one count of possessing a firearm in connection with drug trafficking and one count of possession with intent to distribute marijuana will stand. He faces a maximum term of five years for the distribution of marijuana charge and a mandatory minimum of five years -- and a maximum of life -- for the firearm-related charge. In return, he waives his right to appeal. He was a partner in Montana Cannabis, which was hit hard by DEA raiders in March 2011.

Washington, DC

On Tuesday, DC officials okayed the occupancy permits for the city's first medical marijuana cultivation center and dispensary. Medical marijuana is coming to the District; it's just taken 14 years since the voters approved it and three years since Congress stepped out of the way.

Drug War Issues

Criminal JusticeAsset Forfeiture, Collateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Court Rulings, Drug Courts, Due Process, Felony Disenfranchisement, Incarceration, Policing (2011 Drug War Killings, 2012 Drug War Killings, 2013 Drug War Killings, 2014 Drug War Killings, Arrests, Eradication, Informants, Interdiction, Lowest Priority Policies, Police Corruption, Police Raids, Profiling, Search and Seizure, SWAT/Paramilitarization, Task Forces, Undercover Work), Probation or Parole, Prosecution, Reentry/Rehabilitation, Sentencing (Alternatives to Incarceration, Clemency and Pardon, Crack/Powder Cocaine Disparity, Death Penalty, Decriminalization, Defelonization, Drug Free Zones, Mandatory Minimums, Rockefeller Drug Laws, Sentencing Guidelines)CultureArt, Celebrities, Counter-Culture, Music, Poetry/Literature, Television, TheaterDrug UseParaphernalia, ViolenceIntersecting IssuesCollateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Violence, Border, Budgets/Taxes/Economics, Business, Civil Rights, Driving, Economics, Education (College Aid), Employment, Environment, Families, Free Speech, Gun Policy, Human Rights, Immigration, Militarization, Money Laundering, Pregnancy, Privacy (Search and Seizure, Drug Testing), Race, Religion, Science, Sports, Women's IssuesMarijuana PolicyGateway Theory, Hemp, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Marijuana Industry, Medical MarijuanaMedicineMedical Marijuana, Science of Drugs, Under-treatment of PainPublic HealthAddiction, Addiction Treatment (Science of Drugs), Drug Education, Drug Prevention, Drug-Related AIDS/HIV or Hepatitis C, Harm Reduction (Methadone & Other Opiate Maintenance, Needle Exchange, Overdose Prevention, Safe Injection Sites)Source and Transit CountriesAndean Drug War, Coca, Hashish, Mexican Drug War, Opium ProductionSpecific DrugsAlcohol, Ayahuasca, Cocaine (Crack Cocaine), Ecstasy, Heroin, Ibogaine, ketamine, Khat, Marijuana (Gateway Theory, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Medical Marijuana, Hashish), Methamphetamine, New Synthetic Drugs (Synthetic Cannabinoids, Synthetic Stimulants), Nicotine, Prescription Opiates (Fentanyl, Oxycontin), Psychedelics (LSD, Mescaline, Peyote, Salvia Divinorum)YouthGrade School, Post-Secondary School, Raves, Secondary School

StopTheDrugWar Video Archive