How California Deputies Became Highway Robbers

A group of organized bandits from Southern California has hijacked armored vehicles and taken hundreds of thousands in cash. The heavily armed thieves reportedly have damaged trucks, hassled their victims, covered up video cameras—and even celebrated their haul. “Wowee!” They reportedly cheered after a recent heist and sang “Wowee!”

You’d be forgiven for assuming that this is the latest example of California’s ongoing crime wave, epitomized by “third world” scenes of pilfered freight trains and brazen smash-and-grab robberies. It’s not. This is actually more dangerous than normal crime because the sheriff who masterminds it and his deputies steal armored cars are being looted.

For instance, San Bernardino County deputies stopped the same Empyreal Logistics armored-car driver twice and took a total of nearly $1.1 million in cash owned by legal marijuana dispensaries, per news reports. The government did not charge the armored-car firm or cannabis businesses with any crime, however, the sheriff kept the cash. Critics call it highway theft.

Welcome to the dystopian world of civil-asset forfeiture, a drug-war relic that allows police—often at the behest of district attorneys—to take people’s cash, cars, and properties based on their suspicion that the property was involved in a crime. Officials don’t have to prove the owner of the property was involved in any crime.

This strategy is a common one used by the agencies, as they can keep the profits and use the money to buy vehicles, guns and other items. News reports found police so adept at abusing this process that they sometimes target people who own the kind of fancy SUVs and sports cars that they’d like to have available in their motor pool.

Not only does this process deprive Americans of their Fourth Amendment right to be safe against the government’s searches and seizures, but it undermines the credibility of law enforcement by turning cops into our adversaries. Shannon Dicus, San Bernardino County Sheriff claims “80%” of the marijuana in dispensaries were illegally grown. The sheriff must prove that this is true.

Did I mention that the police agencies—not the drivers, nor the cannabis companies—may be breaking, or at least severely twisting, the law? California law states that police must first be convicted in the drug case before they can seize private property. Federal law also prohibits sheriffs and other authorities from targeting marijuana-licensed businesses or using forfeiture proceeds for current revenue.

When police can seize property without a warrant and force victims into filing lawsuits, why should they follow the law? Many victims are targeted by police without having the resources to defend themselves. Criminal enterprises can be amazingly creative, as anyone who has studied the cartels would know. American law enforcement scofflaws also have a clever way to skirt the pesky rights-upholding laws.

The “equitable sharing” program allows local agencies to “partner” with federal bureaus to conduct forfeiture operations. Sheriffs have the ability to transform local raids into federal ones, bypassing their state laws. Once the raid is over, the federal government and the local authorities split the proceeds. The San Bernardino Department can retain 80 percent of the $1 million plus seized. The feds have 20 percent. Who is going to enforce this federal law? You might be interested in how justice is done in countries with untrustworthy police.

It’s not hard to see what is going on despite Dicus’ boasts about illegal grow fighting. It’s clear that the federal-state marijuana laws are being exploited and abused by Sheriffs. Thirty-seven states have legalized some marijuana sales (recreational or medical), but the feds obstinately keep weed classified as a Schedule I narcotic along the lines of heroin and LSD.

This is not a partisan issue, by the way, as both the Biden and Trump administrations have been atrocious on the issue.

The libertarian Institute for Justice recently filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit, which makes this compelling point: “(I)t makes no sense to confiscate lawfully collected currency from Empyreal’s vehicles as it is delivered safely to the financial system for greater transparency instead of investigating or enforcing against any businesses suspected to be non-compliant. These law enforcement agencies are able to take the cash proceeds from Empyreal, which is why it’s being targeted.

Laws should not be confusing and punish people for being honest in a society that is free. The nation’s marijuana laws seem like something from an Orwellian novel. For instance, legal cannabis shops are required to pay taxes, but federal laws restrict their access to the banking system and state laws limit their ability to pay in cash.

Then, law enforcement agencies use the situation as a way to increase their budgets. No friend of liberty should be celebrating this outrage.

This column appeared in The Orange County Register for the first time.