The war on drugs has corrupted what it means to ‘protect and serve’
The federal government’s recent decision to return more than $1 million in legal marijuana proceeds stolen from an armored car company by California sheriff’s deputies is good news.
However, the initial highway robbery itself — which had been conducted under the color of law by San Bernardino sheriff's deputies — demonstrates just how much the “war on drugs” has corrupted the way we police our communities.
On multiple occasions in 2021, the San Bernardino sheriff’s department specifically and deliberately targeted Empyreal Logistics’ armored vehicles, knowing that the company often transported cash from licensed marijuana dispensaries throughout the region. Without charging any entity for criminal wrongdoing — including the drivers themselves, who didn’t even receive traffic violations — the deputies confiscated over $1 million from the back of the trucks over the course of multiple traffic stops using a procedure known as “civil asset forfeiture.”
Because California law specifically protects the proceeds of legal marijuana companies, the deputies did what police forces around the country have done when faced with similar restrictions on seizing people’s personal property: They turned the loot over to the federal government, hoping to keep up to 80 percent of the money through the Justice Department's “equitable sharing” forfeiture program.
Thankfully, the federal government has agreed to return the money taken from Empyreal’s armored vehicles in exchange for the company dropping federal agencies from a lawsuit brought forward by the Institute for Justice. As Reason.com pointed out, the partial settlement of the lawsuit embodies a notable irony:
“The Justice Department is returning money earned by businesses that federal law still treats as criminal enterprises, thereby defeating San Bernardino County Sheriff Shannon Dicus' attempt to circumvent California law.”
However, even that legal win doesn’t undo the damage done by the sheriff’s deputies. Empyreal has vowed to continue avoiding San Bernardino out of fear of being further harassed (or robbed) by a department that has clear contempt for the property rights of legal cannabis operators and their couriers. It's a fear that seems well founded, judging by the sheriff’s description of Empyreal’s lawsuit as nothing “more than a special-interest crusade and a blatant attempt to interfere with ongoing local criminal investigations.”
For the Nevada marijuana market, the events in San Bernardino should serve as a chilling reminder that, despite liberalizing attitudes toward marijuana use, prohibitionists on the local level can still cause massive headaches. More broadly speaking, however, the kind of police abuse illustrated by the San Bernardino sheriff’s office should raise concerns about the way the war on drugs has permanently altered policing practices throughout the nation.
After all, the kind of highway robbery that occurred in San Bernardino isn’t exactly uncommon — nor is it relegated only to some politically disfavored commercial activity. In February 2021, for example, the Nevada Highway Patrol used the same tactic to confiscate the life savings of a veteran who was pulled over for a minor traffic violation near Reno — with officers even admitting on bodycam footage that they believed he was not engaged in any criminal wrongdoing.
Unlike the armored couriers in California, Stephen Lara wasn’t trafficking proceeds from some legal (or illegal) marijuana dispensary — he was merely traveling with a large amount of cash in his vehicle. That large sum of money, apparently, was reason enough for law enforcement to rob him of his property using the “equitable sharing” program, leaving him penniless on the shoulder of a Northern Nevada highway.
Like Empyreal, Laura was lucky enough to receive representation from the Institute for Justice, and federal authorities have similarly agreed to return his property — although legal action continues against the officers who initiated the seizure in the first place.
But what about victims of asset forfeiture who aren’t lucky enough to have one of the nation’s leading civil-rights law firms take up their case? After all, according to a 2017 study from the Nevada Policy Research Institute, the vast majority of forfeitures are conducted in low-income, mostly minority communities for relatively smaller amounts — meaning most seizures occur against individuals who lack the financial resources to contest such police misconduct in the first place.
For most people, the process of defending one’s property is further frustrated by the fact that, unlike criminal proceedings, victims of civil asset forfeiture are not guaranteed legal representation nor the presumption of innocence — leaving many financially strained individuals with little recourse against a police practice that is specifically designed to circumvent the due-process protections guaranteed by the Constitution.
This quintessentially un-American policing practice is indicative of the way the “war on drugs” has undermined civil liberties and due process in the name of “getting tough” on crime. After all, words are powerful — and, as the saying goes, all’s fair in love and war. Just as the “war on terror” ostensibly justified the warrantless surveillance of American citizens and outright torture of suspected terrorists, so too has the “war on drugs” been used to give law enforcement the tools necessary to circumvent and ignore many of the constitutional protections otherwise guaranteed to individuals.
From questionable prosecutorial actions and no-knock raids, to the militarization of police and the San Bernardino sheriff’s crusade against legal marijuana proceeds, the never-ending “war on drugs” has encouraged many in the law enforcement community to act more like occupying forces in some war zone than trusted local partners in keeping the peace.
The fact that the federal government has returned the money to Empyreal is good news for the legal cannabis industry in California and elsewhere. However, the fact that events unfolded the way they did shows us that the enduring failure of the drug war hasn’t been marked merely by the rise of criminal empires, the proliferation of more dangerous narcotics or embarrassingly high incarceration rates. It has also been marked by a profound corruption of law enforcement’s understanding of what it means to “protect and serve” their communities.
Sadly, that’s a wartime legacy that will far outlive the absurd prohibitionist policies of America’s self-proclaimed drug warriors.
Michael Schaus is a communications and branding consultant based in Las Vegas, Nevada, and founder of Schaus Creative LLC — an agency dedicated to helping organizations, businesses and activists tell their story and motivate change. He is the former communications director for Nevada Policy Research Institute and has more than a decade of experience in public affairs commentary as a columnist, political humorist, and radio talk show host. Follow him at SchausCreative.com or on Twitter at @schausmichael.