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Some federal medical marijuana forfeitures in California dropped

In a highly unusual move last year, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Central District of California filed a civil forfeiture action against an Anaheim man who hadn’t committed any crime.

Federal law allows the Justice Department to seize any assets associated federal crimes, even before trial, through a process called civil forfeiture. Prosecutors frequently use that power to seize money and property they deem to be the proceeds of drug distribution. Historically, however, the federal government’s civil forfeiture power has been limited to seizing the property of people charged with crimes.

All the Anaheim man had done was to rent office space to a medical marijuana dispensary. Even in the face of a highly skeptical judge, prosecutors insisted in December that they “absolutely” intended to proceed, even though they brought no criminal case against the landlord.

According to the public interest law firm the Institute for Justice, U.S. Attorneys have tried to seize more than 1,000 properties in California, Washington, Colorado and other states where medical marijuana is legal -- including at least 30 in California’s Central District alone -- raking in more than $82 million in the process.

In the Anaheim case, the prosecutors at first seemed confident they could seize the landlord’s assets, but they offered him an alternative. If he would promise never to deal with dispensary operators again and submit to surprise inspections of his building, they would drop the civil forfeiture case. He staunchly refused.

“I was shocked when the government first sued me and I realized that civil forfeiture meant the government could take my property from me even though I was not charged with any crime,” he said. “I did not want to be bullied and stood up to the government to protect my property and my reputation.”

This week, the U.S. Attorney backed down. It agreed to dismiss the forfeiture case with prejudice, which means it cannot be refiled, apparently because the winds had changed so much that prosecutors believed they might not only lose but end up having to pay the landlord’s legal fees.

The office also dropped four other Central District forfeiture actions against landlords in Santa Ana and Los Angeles who had leased space to dispensaries.

Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that prosecutors in the Northern District or elsewhere will agree to stop filing forfeiture suits against the landlords of medical marijuana dispensaries.

Source: Reason.com, “U.S. Attorney in L.A. Drops Forfeiture Cases Against Dispensary Landlords,” Jacob Sullum, Oct. 8, 2013

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