Calif. Civil Forfeiture Battle Pits Property Owners and State Law Against City of Anaheim and Federal Government

John Kramer
John Kramer · April 30, 2013

Arlington, Va.—A controversy in California that began with the state’s medical marijuana law has now evolved into an epic battle over civil forfeiture between a property owner and the state of California on one side, and the city of Anaheim and the federal government on the other.

Anaheim small business owner Tony Jalali faces the loss of his office building, which is worth $1.5 million, even though he has committed no crime. The city of Anaheim is colluding with federal prosecutors to do an end-run around state laws to take away Jalali’s building because he rented space to medical marijuana dispensaries, even though they operated legally under California law.

Today, however, Jalali is fighting back. Represented by the Institute for Justice, he is challenging the unconstitutional taking of his land to put an end to the civil forfeiture in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in Santa Ana, Calif.

Civil forfeiture—laws that allow the government to take and sell your property without ever charging you with a crime, let alone convicting you of one—is one of the greatest threats to property rights in the nation. To make matters worse, such forfeitures fund law enforcement officials’ budgets, giving them a direct financial incentive to abuse this power. To add to its sordid history, civil forfeiture is now being employed as the key strategy in the federal government’s battle against states that have legalized medical marijuana, threatening the property of small landlords who have been convicted of no crime.

Nowhere is the abuse of power and the conflict between federal, state and local officials more clear than in Anaheim, where Tony Jalali is fighting to save what is rightfully his. Jalali immigrated to the United States from Iran in 1978 with hope of a better life in the land of liberty. He now owns a modest, two-story office building mortgage free, but because two of his tenants were medical marijuana dispensaries, the federal government demands the property be forfeited for “facilitating” drug crimes. The federal government makes this demand even though medical marijuana dispensaries are legal under state law, and even though Jalali evicted the dispensary located in the building immediately upon receiving the federal complaint. Indeed, the federal complaint threatening to take away his life savings in the form of the building was the first notice Jalali received from the federal government that there was a legal concern about the relatively common practice in California of renting out retail space to such dispensaries.

Incredibly, the profits from the property that law enforcement agents take by civil forfeiture are kept by those same agencies—going straight to the bottom line of their budgets. When local law enforcement agencies team up with federal agencies, the federal government takes the property and pays out up to 80 percent of the money to local or state law enforcement agencies—something it calls “equitable sharing” of forfeiture proceeds.

That is what is happening in this case: If the federal government succeeds in taking Jalali’s building through forfeiture, it will split the proceeds of an eventual sale of the building between federal agencies and the Anaheim police department. Anaheim is colluding with the federal government to do an end-run around state law on two fronts. Not only did California voters legalize the sale of medical marijuana, but state law also bars local or state officials from taking private property by civil forfeiture unless the property owner has been convicted of a crime. Simply put, by using equitable sharing, Anaheim and federal officials are looking to cash in on a million-and-a-half dollar bounty by subverting state law.

“Allowing the police to keep the proceeds of forfeited property gives them a direct financial incentive to use civil forfeiture,” said Scott Bullock, lead attorney on the case for the Institute for Justice. “No one in the United States should lose their property without being convicted of, or even charged with, any crime. But as this case shows, fair and impartial law enforcement cannot exist as long as we allow this policing for profit.”

That is why the Institute for Justice is joining with Jalali to defend his property rights and fight the perverse, unconstitutional incentives for law enforcement created by civil forfeiture and equitable sharing agreements.

“The law must be predictable if it is going to be followed and enforced, yet the law was anything but predictable in this case,” said IJ Attorney Larry Salzman. “It is legal to rent property to a medical marijuana dispensary under California law. The city of Anaheim, while now hoping to cash in on Jalali’s property in this case, has hosted the world’s largest marijuana trade show in its city-owned convention center each year since 2010, attracting tens of thousands of visitors. And since 2009, the federal government has said that it would not pursue federal cases against medical marijuana users or dispensaries in states that have made the activity legal. Anaheim and the federal government have snared Tony Jalali in a trap that could cost him his property.”

Salzman co-authored the Institute for Justice’s 2011 report Inequitable Justice: How Federal “Equitable Sharing” Encourages Local Police and Prosecutors to Evade State Civil Forfeiture Law for Financial Gain. More than $450 million was paid by the federal government to local law enforcement agencies nationwide under the equitable sharing program in 2012.

The forfeiture case against Jalali is part of a campaign by U.S. Attorneys to enforce a federal prohibition on marijuana—letters have been sent to more than 1,000 property owners in California, Washington, Colorado and other states where marijuana has been made legal under state law threatening them with civil forfeiture. The federal government in concert with certain California cities has filed approximately 30 cases against property owners in Southern California alone during the past year.

“I am fighting for my rights, because it is wrong for the federal government and city of Anaheim to bypass state law, and try to take my property when I have done nothing wrong,” said property owner Tony Jalali. “I left Iran to escape government brutality which has no respect for human rights. This nation has given me a home and has a great history of respecting human rights. I have every hope it will ultimately respect those rights, including my property rights.”

“Civil forfeiture is a threat to property rights that must end,” said IJ President and General Counsel Chip Mellor. “The Institute for Justice has documented time and again that it invites a lack of due process and a lack of constitutionally enshrined restraints on government authority. If the government wants to take someone’s property, it should first be required to convict him or her of a crime.”

For more information on the case, visit Founded in 1991, the Virginia-based Institute for Justice is the national law firm for liberty. It has defended property owners across the nation who are victims of civil forfeiture, most recently scoring a victory for Russell and Patricia Caswell and their family-owned motel in Tewksbury, Mass., (see IJ is joined in the case by Lake Forest, Calif., attorney Matthew S. Pappas, as local counsel.