San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis has been ordered to return more than $100,000 seized from a medical marijuana businessman and his family, 15 months after drug agents raided the company and didn’t charge anyone with a crime.
Superior Court Judge Tamila E. Ipema issued the order late Friday, almost six weeks after lawyers representing San Diego businessman James Slatic argued that the money must be returned.
“Investigations have been ongoing since January 2016 and there is no indication … that criminal charges are going to be filed in this case in the near future,” the judge wrote.
Dumanis has used state and federal civil asset-forfeiture rules for years to confiscate millions of dollars from drug suspects.
Steve Walker, a spokesman for Dumanis, said the office is considering an appeal of the ruling, among other options.
“The investigation remains under review for potential criminal charges, therefore the District Attorney’s Office is not able to discuss the facts, the status of that review or any evidence related to it,” Walker said via email. “The funds ordered returned by a civil judge last week were previously found by a criminal judge to be tainted by criminal conduct, and we are reviewing the court transcript from the … hearing in March to explore further options.”
Slatic said he was pleased with the judge’s decision.
“It’s about time,” he wrote in a statement. “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,” he added. “Our lives were turned upside down. It felt like we were robbed — by the police.”
In late January 2016, a swarm of heavily armed drug agents used sledgehammers to break open the front door of Med-West Distribution, a Kearny Mesa firm that supplied a collective of medical pot shops with cannabis oils used for vaping as well as marijuana-laced edibles, topical creams and other products.
The agents seized all of the inventory, business records and just over $324,000 in cash. A separate forfeiture proceeding for those funds is ongoing. The agents also arrested two employees inside the building at the time, although no criminal charges have been filed.
A few days later, the District Attorney’s Office sought to freeze Slatic’s personal bank account — and those of his wife and two stepdaughters — alleging that the money was illegal drug profits. The money taken was $55,000 from Slatic’s account, $34,000 from his wife’s account and over $5,000 each from the couple’s two daughters. It was formally seized a few months later.
During two days of hearings in November, lawyers for the Institute for Justice nonprofit law firm argued before Judge Jay Bloom that the money should be returned because it was not part of Med-West Distribution.
Bloom rejected the argument, saying there was probable cause for prosecutors to pursue a criminal case against Slatic and prove the funds were derived from criminal activity.
Earlier this year, after the one-year anniversary of the raid passed without criminal charges being filed, lawyers for Slatic again sought to secure the return of the family’s money.
The District Attorney’s Office opposed the motion, arguing that prosecutors had 12 months from the day the money was formally seized to proceed with a criminal case, giving them until June to decide.
Judge Ipema did not agree.
“The People cannot hold on the Claimant’s money indefinitely without having filed any charges against any of them at the present time,” her three-page order states.
Attorney Wesley Hottot of the Institute for Justice said San Diego prosecutors took advantage of his clients.
“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,” he said.
During the November hearings, Slatic testified that San Diego police and city officials repeatedly visited his company and issued him a business license.
Hottot said Monday that law enforcement agencies exploited the asset-forfeiture rules to boost their own budgets. The rules allow police and sheriff’s departments and the District Attorney’s Office to retain a portion of assets they seize.
“This case was never about public safety; it was about policing for profit,” Hottot said. “The Slatics’ ordeal illustrates why the government should not have the power to take people’s property without charging anyone with a crime.”
Last fall, Gov. Jerry Brown made it more difficult for California police agencies to keep seized assets.
Starting January, law enforcement officials were no longer able to keep seized cash and property valued at less than $40,000 in federal cases without obtaining a criminal conviction.
© 2017 San Diego Union Tribune (San Diego, Calif.) Visit The Union Tribune at www.sandiegouniontribune.com Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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