Authorities must return more than $100,000 to the owner of a California marijuana business, a superior court judge ruled last week, more than 15 months after police seized the money under suspicion it was connected to illegal activity.
In January 2016, dozens of heavily armed drug agents raided James Slatic’s San Diego-based Med-West Distribution, a company that manufactures a variety of cannabis products for medical use. Officers claimed to be acting on a tip that the facility was producing and distributing cannabis oil in violation of California law. They proceeded to seize Med-West’s inventory and assets, including the personal bank accounts of Slatic and his family which contained more than $100,000.
Slatic’s assets have been frozen since, even though the San Diego district attorney’s office hasn’t filed criminal charges against him. Because prosecutors claimed he had transferred money between his business and family accounts, however, they were reportedly exploring making the seizure permanent through civil asset forfeiture ― a practice that allows law enforcement to take property based solely upon the suspicion it’s linked to a crime, without having to obtain a criminal conviction or even press charges against the owner.
But as of last week, prosecutors hadn’t officially begun with those proceedings or with a criminal case, which they’d argued they had until June to do.
In a Friday ruling, California Superior Court Judge Tamila Ipema disagreed, declaring that the district attorney’s office had waited too long to proceed with legal action on the Slatics’ personal assets.
“The [state] cannot hold on to [Slatics’] money indefinitely without having filed any charges against any of them at the present time,” wrote Ipema.
Ipema’s decision came more than two months after Slatic’s attorneys filed a motion demanding the money be returned.
In a statement to the San Diego Union-Tribune, a spokesperson for the district attorney’s office said an investigation into potential criminal charges “remains under review,” and that they are “explor[ing] further options.”
Slatic’s case is the latest controversy involving civil forfeiture. In most states, these cases are subject to low evidentiary standards, which often leaves defendants with the burden of proving their innocence with respect to their seized property. The money authorities collect through civil forfeiture typically goes back into department coffers, leading critics to claim the process creates a profit incentive that warps policing priorities and leads to abuse. The system also generally offers minimal protections for property owners, which sometimes allows the government to hold people’s assets in a state of legal purgatory for long periods.
Ipema appeared to express concern with the lack of urgency prosecutors had shown in Slatic’s case.
“[The] money that [the state is] holding does not appear to have any evidentiary value on its own, and it cannot be declared contraband without due process,” she wrote. “The [state’s] investigations have been on-going since January 2016 and there is no indication from the [state] that criminal charges are going to be filed in this case in the near future.”
A second case challenging the seizure of Med-West’s business assets is still ongoing. But after previous legal challenges had failed to unfreeze his family’s personal bank accounts, Slatic said Friday’s development was welcome news.
“It is about time,” he said in a statement to the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm that represents the Slatic family.
“We did nothing wrong,” added Slatic. “My business operated openly and legally for more than two years; we paid taxes and had a retirement program for our 35 employees. No one broke any laws but the District Attorney swooped in and took everything from me and my family, even though they had no connection to my business. Our lives were turned upside down. It felt like we had been robbed — by the police.”
The Institute for Justice believes all forfeiture should require a criminal conviction, and advocates for civil forfeiture reform around the country. Slatic’s legal ordeal shows why these laws need to be changed, said IJ attorney Wesley Hottot, who represents the Slatics.
“It shouldn’t take a team of lawyers and 15 months of legal battles for an innocent family to get their money back from the government,” Hottot said in a statement. “This case was never about public safety; it was about policing for profit.”
The ruling comes months after California enacted stricter rules on civil forfeiture, following a successful reform effort in the state legislature last year. Under the new law, police must obtain a criminal conviction before they can seize assets under $40,000.
For larger sums of money ― like the $100,000 in Slatic’s case ― authorities must now provide “clear and convincing” evidence of a connection to criminal activity before taking the money for good.