The US Department of Justice (DOJ) has agreed to return over a million dollars worth of legal weed money that California cops stole from an armored car company.
Late last year, San Bernardino County sheriff's deputies began targeting vans operated by Empyreal Logistics, a Pennsylvania-based armored transport company that transports cash for state-legal cannabis businesses. Between last November and this January, cops stopped the company's trucks on three separate occasions.
Cops seized $700,000 in cash from an armored car during the first stop and nabbed another $350,000 on the second stop. On the third stop, cops didn't take anything because the van was full of coins that were unrelated to the legal weed business.
Empyreal was not violating any state law, and all of the cash that they were hauling belonged to cannabis businesses that were completely legal in California. But because the federal government continues to prohibit cannabis, cops were able to cash in on a civil forfeiture deal offered by the US Justice Department. Under the feds' "equitable sharing" program, cops are allowed to keep 80 percent of any drug-related money that they seize.
Since none of the companies involved were breaking state laws, San Bernardino County Sheriff Shannon Dicus handed over the weed money to the feds. And thanks to the equitable sharing agreement, most of that cash was destined to go right back into those cops' pockets. Empyrean was ultimately able to thwart their scheme, though, by enlisting the Institute for Justice to sue the DOJ, the DEA, and the FBI.
Attorneys argued that Empyreal was not directly violating any federal laws because the company does not actually transport cannabis. And although weed is still federally illegal, Congress has maintained an annual budget rider that specifically prohibits the DOJ from interfering with state-legal medical marijuana businesses. Since most of the money involved came from medical pot companies, the attorneys argued that the seizure of these funds violated this amendment.
The case did not even have to go to court. The DOJ agreed that the raids were unjustified, and will return 100 percent of the stolen cash to Empyreal. In exchange, the company is dismissing its lawsuit against the feds.
“Empyreal was operating legally under California law, but with current federal civil forfeiture laws, even compliant businesses can be targeted,” said Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Dan Alban in a statement. “Civil forfeiture enabled law enforcement to seize over a million dollars in legal business proceeds and threaten to keep it. Returning this money is the right thing to do and we’re pleased to have helped Empyreal secure this outcome.”
The company has filed another suit against the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department, arguing that the sheriff exceeded his lawful authority by taking action against businesses that were fully complying with state laws. The Institute for Justice notes that California law explicitly states that any company that transports cash for state-licensed weed businesses is not breaking any state law. This lawsuit is still ongoing.