San Diego—After a 15-month court battle, the Slatic family finally received good news late on Friday afternoon when Judge Tamila E. Ipema of the San Diego County Superior Court ordered the local District Attorney to return their life savings, after it was seized for civil forfeiture. The Judge ruled that the District Attorney had no grounds to hold the funds since it had not pursued any criminal charges or forfeiture for more than 12 months.
The San Diego District Attorney (DA) seized all of the family’s money from their bank accounts on February 2, 2016, following a raid on James Slatic’s legal medical marijuana business. Although no one has been charged with any crime, the DA used civil forfeiture laws to seize more than $55,000 from James’ personal bank account, more than $34,000 from his wife, Annette, and more than $5,600 each from their teenage daughters Lily and Penny, who had saved the money for college.
Judge Ipema’s order requires the DA to return all $100,693.85 to the Slatics.
“It is about time,” said James Slatic on hearing the news. “We did nothing wrong. 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 Slatics partnered with the Institute for Justice—a nonprofit public interest law firm that fights civil forfeiture nationwide. Over the course of the Slatics’ 15-month fight, two judges denied three separate motions seeking return of their money. When the DA missed a February 2017 deadline to file a formal lawsuit against the family, she still refused to return their money and attempted to file a case anyway. The case was assigned to Judge Ipema and, on March 27, she ruled that the DA had missed the mandated deadline.
On Friday, Judge Ipema amended her order to require the prompt return of every penny the DA took from the Slatics, writing:
“[The] money that [the] People are holding does not appear to have any evidentiary value on its own, and it cannot be declared contraband without due process. The People’s investigations have been on-going since January 2016 and there is no indication from the People that criminal charges are going to be filed in this case in the near future. The People cannot hold on to [the Slatics’] money indefinitely without having filed any charges against any of them at the present time.”
“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,” said Wesley Hottot, an attorney at the Institute for Justice, which represents the Slatic family. “This case was never about public safety; it was about policing for profit. The Slatics’ ordeal illustrates why the government should not have the power to take people’s property without charging anyone with a crime.”
“Although California recently reformed its civil forfeiture laws, this case illustrates the only way to prevent abuse: we have to end civil forfeiture once and for all,” said IJ attorney Allison Daniel. “The vast majority of forfeiture cases are never heard by a judge because most forfeiture victims cannot afford to hire a lawyer and prove their own innocence. That is why this victory is so important: It shows that people can fight back and win.”