(Reason) James Slatic, a California medical marijuana business owner, found out all his family’s bank accounts had been seized by the government one day in January when his 19-year-old daughter tried to buy lunch at the San Jose State University cafeteria and her card was declined.
Slatic’s wife tried to transfer money to their daughter, figuring she had simply overdrawn her account, as teenagers are wont to do, but her account wouldn’t work, either. What the Slatics soon learned was the San Diego police had frozen all of their bank accounts: $55,258 from Slatic’s personal checking and savings account; $34,175 from his wife Annette’s account; and a combined $11,260 from the savings accounts of their two teenage daughters, Penny and Lily.
“Just imagine what it’s like when you’re a 57-year-old business man with three kids and a house, and supporting elderly parents, and all the sudden all your money is gone,” Slatic says in an interview with Reason. “It’s disappeared. Your car payment bounces, your insurance doesn’t go through.”
The Slatics’ crimes? None. Or at least, the San Diego District Attorney’s Office hasn’t charged them with any in the nine months since it seized their accounts.
On Tuesday the Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning public interest law firm, filed a motion in California district court seeking the return of roughly $100,000 of the Slatic family’s money. The Institute for Justice argues the seizure was a brazen and illegal use of civil asset forfeiture, a practice that allows police to seize property they suspect is connected to a crime. The owner often does not have to be convicted or even charged with a crime.
The trouble for James Slatic began five days before his family’s accounts were frozen, when around 30 San Diego police officers and DEA agents raided Slatic’s medical marijuana business, Med-West Distribution, and seized nearly $325,000 in cash from a safe.
Slatic says he worked with the city to obtain all the necessary permits for his business, which refined marijuana oils for use in vaporizers and topical ointments. He is also politically involved in California’s marijuana regulations and served on the boards of the Marijuana Policy Project and the California Cannabis Industry Association.
Surveillance video shows the heavily armed law enforcement officers breaching the door and detaining Med-West employees at gunpoint.
The raid was a crushing blow to Slatic—not to mention his 35 employees, who lost their jobs and benefits without notice—but he never thought the police would go after his family’s money as well. Slatic says they’ve been relying on help from family and friends, credit cards, as well as an online fundraising campaign, although that hasn’t made much a dent in the roughly $70,000 in legal fees he’s accrued so far.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the San Diego District Attorney’s Office says “the investigation related to this DEA task force raid is ongoing and the case remains under review for potential criminal charges.”
“In addition, the primary mission of the asset forfeiture program is to enhance public safety by removing the proceeds of crime and other assets relied upon by criminals to perpetuate their criminal activity,” the spokesperson continues. “When it comes to spending the funds, we’re obligated to follow nationwide policies, procedures and guidelines set up by the Department of Justice.”
San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis and the city have been particularly aggressive in policing medical marijuana businesses.
Although the police were working as part of a Drug Enforcement Administration task force, federal prosecutors were blocked from going after Slatic by legislation, authored by California GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, that restricts Justice Department funds from being used to prosecute people who are in compliance with state medical marijuana laws.