Civil Asset Forfeiture

How California Deputies Became Highway Robbers

San Bernardino County deputies stopped the same armored-car driver twice and took nearly $1.1 million in cash owned by legal marijuana dispensaries.


An organized group of Southern California bandits has brazenly hijacked armored cars and grabbed hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash. The heavily armed thieves reportedly have damaged trucks, hassled their victims, covered up video cameras—and even celebrated their haul. "Wowee!" and "way to go, buddy," they allegedly cheered, after pulling a recent heist.

You'd be forgiven for assuming that this is the latest example of California's ongoing crime wave, epitomized by "third world" scenes of pilfered freight trains and brazen smash-and-grab robberies. But it's nothing of the sort. Actually, it's more pernicious than the usual crime spree because a sheriff is the mastermind and his deputies are looting the armored cars.

For instance, San Bernardino County deputies stopped the same Empyreal Logistics armored-car driver twice and took a total of nearly $1.1 million in cash owned by legal marijuana dispensaries, per news reports. The government has not charged the armored-car company nor the cannabis firms with any crimes, but the sheriff keeps the cash, anyway. Critics are right to call it highway robbery.

Welcome to the dystopian world of civil-asset forfeiture, a drug-war relic that allows police—often at the behest of district attorneys—to take people's cash, cars, and properties based on their suspicion that the property was involved in a crime. Officials never have to prove that the property's owner was involved in a crime.

The agencies have every incentive to employ this strategy routinely given that they keep the proceeds and spend the money on vehicles, guns, and whatever. News reports found police so adept at abusing this process that they sometimes target people who own the kind of fancy SUVs and sports cars that they'd like to have available in their motor pool.

Not only does this process deprive Americans of their Fourth Amendment right to be safe against the government's searches and seizures, but it undermines the credibility of law enforcement by turning cops into our adversaries. San Bernardino County Sheriff Shannon Dicus claims that "80 percent of marijuana at dispensaries was grown illegally." If that's true, then the sheriff simply needs to, you know, go to court and prove it.

Did I mention that the police agencies—not the drivers, nor the cannabis companies—may be breaking, or at least severely twisting, the law? California law requires police to gain a conviction in the underlying drug case before seizing private property. Furthermore, federal law forbids sheriffs from targeting licensed marijuana businesses and from using forfeiture proceeds to supplant current revenues.

Why should police follow the law when they can take what they want and force victims to file lawsuits to get their property returned? Police often target victims without the wherewithal to fight back. Criminal enterprises can be amazingly creative, as anyone who has studied the cartels would know. Likewise, American law-enforcement scofflaws have come up with a creative workaround to pesky rights-upholding laws.

The "equitable sharing" program allows local agencies to "partner" with federal bureaus to conduct forfeiture operations. By magically turning a local raid into a federal one, sheriffs can circumvent their own state laws. Then the feds and locals split the loot. In this situation, the San Bernardino department can keep 80 percent of the seized $1 million-plus. And who is going to enforce the federal law when the feds get 20-percent of the action? If you wonder how justice works in countries where the police are untrustworthy, then this should provide insight.

Despite Dicus' blather about fighting illegal grows, it's clear what's going on. Sheriffs are exploiting the chasm between state and federal marijuana laws. Thirty-seven states have legalized some marijuana sales (recreational or medical), but the feds obstinately keep weed classified as a Schedule I narcotic along the lines of heroin and LSD.

This is not a partisan issue, by the way, as both the Biden and Trump administrations have been atrocious on the issue.

The libertarian Institute for Justice recently filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit, which makes this compelling point: "(I)t makes no sense to confiscate lawfully collected currency from Empyreal's vehicles as it is delivered safely to the financial system for greater transparency instead of investigating or enforcing against any businesses suspected to be non-compliant. The real reason Empyreal is being targeted is because it is very profitable for these law-enforcement agencies to seize the cash proceeds."

In a free society, laws should be logical and promote just outcomes, not create Catch-22 situations that punish honest people who are trying to comply. Yet the nation's cannabis laws are something out of an Orwell novel. For instance, legal cannabis shops are required to pay taxes, but federal laws restrict their access to the banking system and state laws limit their ability to pay in cash.

Then law enforcement agencies take advantage of the situation to bolster their own budgets. No friend of liberty should be celebrating this outrage.

This column was first published in The Orange County Register.