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Feature Stories

Policing for Profit

From Issue: Volume XXI - Number 25

By Steve Propes

Stories about various law enforcement seizures of cash and property in small speed trap type municipalities in Georgia, North Carolina and Texas have appeared in national media for decades. In an August 12, 2013 New Yorker article, “Taken,” instances of this policy were described in detail in big city environments.

Philadelphia cops targeted a young man who had thrice sold $20 worth of marijuana to an informant who used marked money.

Those crimes gave the SWAT team the right to raid the home of his elderly parents, who were unaware of his activities. About a month later, the cops returned, this time to seize the parents’ home, which they could do, even if the young man “was acquitted in criminal court; in fact, the process could be completed even before he stood trial.”

Like Philadelphia, local cities like Santa Ana and Long Beach are also profiting from the same federal law that encourages such seizures in the ongoing war against drugs. And it is an effective tool, the key part of which has to do with what the feds can do compared to what local enforcement can do.

If the seizures were part of enforcement by Long Beach Police only, a conviction would be necessary to make the seizures permanent. Not so of seizures by the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) or agencies with which they partner.

Any such DEA seizure does not require a conviction. Thus, by partnering with the DEA, Long Beach can keep the proceeds of seizures from raids on marijuana dispensaries without the bother of a conviction.

City attorney candidate Matt Pappas, who currently represents marijuana dispensaries, noted, “the original idea of these seizures was to bring down drug kingpins. Civil asset forfeiture laws were passed under the Reagan/Bush administration in 1992. However, when abuses of these laws occurred, Congress passed the Civil Asset Reform Act (CAFRA) not allowing government to take things without notice. However the Patriot Act gutted the CAFRA act.”

None of this comes cheaply. In an April 13, 2013 case, Santa Ana police seized a dentist’s office in Santa Ana, claiming 80 percent of the proceeds. However, in a document dated May 20, 2013, Santa Ana police claimed 5,360 hours expended in the investigation, which at a rate of $40 per hour would be in excess of $200,000 for this real property in a distressed area, probably worth not much more than that amount. However, as the city would be eligible to 80 percent, the payout would be less, depending on how much the property sells.

Cash is a different matter. According to Long Beach Police in an email dated November, 13, 2013, “Since 2010 we have seized approximately $1,301,883 cash from marijuana dispensary investigations, and those cases have been submitted to the federal government or state for asset forfeiture proceedings.” That means the city would net just over $1 million, with the DEA claiming the remaining 20 percent.

However, that estimate doesn’t account for personal property taken through similar means. In the well-publicized case of 44-year-old dispensary operator Jon Storms of Long Beach owned rifles, handguns and shotguns, 17 classic cars, five motorcycles, eight recreational vehicles and $806,500 in cash. He also owned homes at the Colorado River front, residences in Nevada, a residence in Mira Loma, a residence in East Long Beach and had recently acquired the El Dorado Restaurant.

Storms’ property was seized in August 2012, and according to a source knowledgeable about the case, “he never got anything back. They seized 17 motorcycles and custom cars, seized everything and haven’t returned anything.” This source also stated Storms made a deal to relinquish seized property in exchange for not being prosecuted. On the advice of his attorney, Storms chose not to be interviewed for this story.

Such seizures are called “policing for profit.” Asked about this policy, Seventh District Councilman James Johnson, who is running against Pappas for City Attorney stated, “There’s something called asset forfeiture laws. It is a different standard of proof. I’m not an expert on asset forfeiture. There’s a larger policy question, are these laws just, what is the burden of proof and is it the role of city attorney to enforce the laws that are there and to enforce the laws that make sense to the public.”

Acting City Attorney Charles Parkin, who is also running for that office, did not respond to a request to discuss this policy. Vice Mayor Robert Garcia and 70th District Assembly Member Bonnie Lowenthal, both campaigning for mayor, said they were not aware of this seizure law. “I thrive about learning about new issues,” said Lowenthal.

According to Pappas, when dispensaries were banned, Police Chief Jim McDonnell stated, “I can bring in my federal partners.” Apparently, this tactic is paying off.