San Diego County Dist. Atty. 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 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 was considering an appeal of the ruling.
“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 in an email Monday. “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 said. “Our lives were turned upside down. It felt like we were robbed — by the police.”
In late January 2016, drug agents used sledgehammers to break open the front door of Med-West Distribution, a 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, Dumanis’ 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 more than $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.
Ipema disagreed, finding that “the people cannot hold the claimant’s money indefinitely without having filed any charges.”
California law prohibits law enforcement officials from keeping seized cash and property valued at less than $40,000 in federal cases without obtaining a criminal conviction.
McDonald writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune