San Diego, Ca.—For two years, James Slatic operated his legal medical marijuana business, Med-West Distribution, from a commercial building on Engineer Road. James was public about his marijuana business because, under California law, Med-West was permitted to manufacture and distribute the drug to patients with a doctor’s prescription. The business complied with state law, registered with the City of San Diego, had a website and paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in state and federal taxes every year.
Without warning, everything changed in January 2016, when San Diego police and agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency raided Med-West and shut the business down. The officers refused to recognize Med-West’s legal status and—without charging anyone with a crime—they seized everything from the business, including $324,000 in business proceeds.
But the legal nightmare was only beginning for James and his family.
A few days after the raid, the San Diego County District Attorney used civil forfeiture to seize every penny in James’ personal bank accounts, his wife Annette’s accounts, and accounts belonging to their teenage daughters, Lily and Penny. In the nine months since, the District Attorney has held the Slatics’ money in legal limbo, giving them no opportunity to prove their innocence.
Now the Slatics are fighting back. With the help of the Institute for Justice (IJ), the Slatics recently filed a motion with the San Diego County Superior Court seeking the return of their money.
“This case is not about crime fighting,” said Wesley Hottot, an IJ attorney representing the Slatics. “This case is about policing for profit, and it illustrates the abusive power of civil forfeiture at its worst.”
Civil forfeiture is the government’s power to take property without proving the owner committed a crime. The practice is controversial because it does not require a criminal conviction and because police and prosecutors get to keep virtually everything they seize for their own use. This encourages police to look for opportunities to seize property even where no crime has occurred.
“I’ve done nothing wrong,” said James Slatic. “It’s beyond frustrating that my family’s money was taken without any criminal charges being filed. My wife and teenage daughters had nothing to do with my business whatsoever, and the District Attorney took their college savings accounts. This is not just wrong; it is unconstitutional.”
“Civil forfeiture is one of the greatest threats to property rights in the nation,” said IJ Attorney Allison Daniel, who also represents the Slatics. “Civil forfeiture takes the American principle of innocent until proven guilty and flips it on its head, treating property owners worse than criminals by making them prove their innocence.”
The Slatics’ motion demonstrates that the seizure of their money was unconstitutional. Under the California Constitution, the government must have “probable cause” to believe a crime has been committed before they can seize a person’s property. Because police and prosecutors ignored Med-West’s status as a legal marijuana business, they did not have probable cause to seize the Slatics’ money. Even if Med-West had been an illegal operation (and it was not), the Slatics’ personal money is not connected to the business.