The first round of the nation’s most high-profile civil forfeiture case will occur Monday, August 26, in federal court in Santa Ana, California. The case could decide whether the federal civil forfeiture program known as “equitable sharing” unconstitutionally allows local law enforcement agencies to team up with the federal government to profit from civil forfeiture actions that are forbidden under state law. Scott Bullock and Larry Salzman, attorneys for the libertarian Institute for Justice will represent the property owner affected in the case.
Anaheim, California property owner Tony Jalali faces the loss of his office building, which is worth $1.5 million, even though he has committed no crime. The city of Anaheim is colluding with federal prosecutors to do an end-run around state laws to take away Jalali’s building because he rented space to medical marijuana dispensaries, even though they operated legally under California law. Jalali evicted the tenants when he received notice from the federal government that medical marijuana dispensaries were not legal under federal law, even though they are permitted by the state of California.
If the federal government succeeds in taking Jalali’s building through forfeiture, it will split the proceeds of an eventual sale of the building between federal agencies and the Anaheim police department through a federal program known as “equitable sharing.” By using equitable sharing, the government is attempting an end-run around state law on two fronts. Not only did California voters legalize the sale of medical marijuana, but state law also bars local or state officials from taking private property by civil forfeiture unless the property owner has been convicted of a crime. Simply put, by using equitable sharing, Anaheim and federal officials are looking to cash in on a $1.5 million bounty by subverting state law. The government has not sought to forfeit the property of the actual marijuana dispensaries or charged Jalali’s former tenants with any crime.
Forfeiture was not supposed to be used as a punishment for a property owner who committed no crime, yet that is how it is being used today—as an arbitrary punishment imposed only against those citizens who have something the government can take to pad its budget. Jalali made a counterclaim to the government’s forfeiture complaint, seeking to have this equitable sharing program declared unconstitutional. The government has moved to dismiss Jalali’s counterclaims, which will be addressed at Monday’s hearing.