RIVERSIDE, Calif.—Empyreal Logistics, an armored car and fintech company that operates nationwide, sued several federal law enforcement agencies and the San Bernardino County Sheriff after being the victim of roadside seizures which amount to highway robbery. The newly filed federal lawsuit demands law enforcement immediately stop targeting Empyreal for seizures that have no basis under state or federal law and violate Empyreal’s constitutional rights. Empyreal is represented by the Institute for Justice (IJ), a public-interest law firm that defends people from civil forfeiture across the country.
“This is nothing but highway robbery using badges,” said IJ Senior Attorney Dan Alban. “Empyreal is transporting proceeds from legal businesses to financial institutions. These seizures don’t stop crime or improve public safety; they just enrich these agencies, which get to split the proceeds from civil forfeiture. These funds are only being seized because of that profit incentive. And that’s not remotely legal or constitutional.”
Empyreal is a fintech and armored car company operating in 28 states that provides cash logistics solutions. This includes secure delivery between legal businesses (such as state-licensed cannabis businesses) and financial institutions. Notably, Empyreal never transports cannabis products. Empyreal also serves a number of non-cannabis businesses, including financial institutions, restaurants and convenience stores.
On five separate occasions since May 2021, local law enforcement officers stopped Empyreal vehicles on highways. During three of these stops, officers seized the bank deposits the vehicles were transporting. Sheriffs’ offices in California and Kansas then transferred the funds to federal law enforcement to take advantage of lax federal civil forfeiture practices. If successfully forfeited, up to 80% of the proceeds taken through the federal “equitable sharing” program would then return to local law enforcement to spend as it pleases.
Civil forfeiture allows law enforcement to take property without convicting, and often without even charging, anyone with a crime. No federal or state criminal charges have been filed against Empyreal, its employees or its clients. Unlike in a criminal proceeding, prosecutors do not need to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt to keep property forever.
“Empyreal is proud to provide a professional and secure solution for our customers to safely transport their deposits into the financial system, which increases transparency and makes communities safer by getting cash off the streets,” said Empyreal CEO Deirdra O’Gorman. “Because both we and our clients operate completely within the law, we have never had problems until recently. To continue serving our clients, we have no choice but to stand up for our constitutional rights.”
Just in the past eight weeks, Empyreal has had three vehicles stopped by San Bernardino County Sheriff’s deputies, two of which resulted in seizures of the legal proceeds they were transporting. In all three cases, Empyreal’s driver was pulled over on a flimsy pretext that did not result in a ticket or arrest. Instead, deputies were focused on seizing cash deposits from cannabis dispensaries. Empyreal’s clients in California are financial institutions that service legal, state-licensed businesses that are in good standing with regulators. The Sheriff has no authority under California law to seize the funds. Additionally, these forfeitures violate a federal prohibition on federal law enforcement from using any resources to target state-legal medical cannabis businesses. The seizures also violate Empyreal’s Fourth Amendment rights and due process rights to the neutral administration of justice by police and prosecutors who are not financially motivated in their actions.
“What is happening to Empyreal potently illustrates why we call civil forfeiture ‘policing for profit,’” said IJ Attorney Kirby Thomas West. “Law enforcement is trying to take more than a million dollars without charging anyone with a crime. That is absurd and deeply unconstitutional. It is yet another reason why lawmakers need to eliminate civil forfeiture altogether.”
IJ is the leading defender of civil forfeiture victims, representing people in court, highlighting the many problems with civil forfeiture through strategic research, and advocating for the abolition of civil forfeiture in legislatures. In Los Angeles, IJ brought a class action lawsuit against the FBI over its raid of security deposit boxes. IJ also brought a class action lawsuit against the Drug Enforcement Administration and Transportation Security Administration over searches and seizures at airports. And most recently, IJ launched a class action lawsuit against Harris County’s (Houston) civil forfeiture practices. Thanks in part to IJ’s advocacy, this year Maine joined several other states that have ended civil forfeiture, leaving only the state’s criminal forfeiture process.
Empyreal’s local counsel in the case is David C. Bass of the Sacramento office of Koeller, Nebeker, Carlson & Haluck LLP.