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Feds abruptly drop effort to seize legal weed profits being transported from Kansas City

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Photo Illustration-Carlos Moreno
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KCUR 89.3
The U.S. Attorney's Office in Kansas did not say why it was dismissing its civil forfeiture action against Empyreal Logistics.

The armored truck was carrying profits from medical marijuana sales in Kansas City, Missouri, to a credit union in Colorado. The company claimed that federal and state law enforcement agencies were targeting its armored cars because the civil forfeiture seizures were "very profitable."

Federal prosecutors in Kansas have given up their effort to retain cash seized from a van carrying the proceeds of legal marijuana sales in Kansas City, Missouri.

In a dismissal motion filed in federal court in Kansas City, Kansas, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Kansas said it would no longer pursue the forfeiture of $165,620 seized by a Dickinson County, Kansas, sheriff’s deputy last year after he stopped the van on Interstate 70 for a supposed traffic violation.

U.S. District Judge Holly L. Teeter granted the motion and dismissed the case on Tuesday, meaning that the cash seized in Kansas will now be returned.

Prosecutors’ brief, five-sentence motion did not say why they had decided to drop the case. A. Danielle Thomas, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said the office would have no comment on the dismissal.

Officials with Empyreal Logistics, the armored transport company whose van was seized, could not be reached for comment. Attorneys for the company did not return requests for comment.

Legal experts were puzzled by the government's forfeiture action, which fell into a grey zone involving substances legal in Missouri but illegal in Kansas and on the federal level.

Prosecutors justified the seizure on the grounds that the cash was traceable to sales that violated the federal Controlled Substances Act. Despite a growing number of states that have legalized medical or recreational marijuana, cannabis remains classified as a Schedule I drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act.

And marijuana remains illegal in Kansas, where the truck was stopped.

But the money was generated by sales of medical marijuana in Missouri, which has been legal since 2018, when voters approved a ballot initiative to legalize the medical use of cannabis.

Empyreal Logistics' van was transporting the money to a credit union in Colorado. Empyreal fiercely contested the forfeiture action and subsequently filed a lawsuit claiming law enforcement agents had acted illegally in seizing the cash, as well as money that feds seized after they stopped Empyreal's vans in California.

Empyreal claimed federal and state law enforcement agencies were targeting its armored cars “because it is very profitable for those law enforcement agencies to seize the cash proceeds that Empyreal is transporting and keep that money using civil forfeiture.”

The lawsuit accused sheriff’s deputies in both states of acting in concert with the Drug Enforcement Administration to conduct “pretextual stops” of Empyreal’s vehicles, seize their cash contents, and turn the cash over to federal law enforcement for forfeiture proceedings.

Under its equitable sharing program, the federal government shares assets seized in civil forfeitures with state and local law enforcement agencies.

Civil forfeiture cases allow the government to seize property that isn’t reachable through criminal forfeiture proceedings. Common examples are property of criminals residing outside the United States, including terrorists and fugitives.

In April, the government agreed to return $1.1 million it seized from the Empyreal vans in California. In return, Empyreal agreed to drop its lawsuit, even though the forfeiture action in Kansas was still pending.

Because the cases in California and Kansas involved nearly identical fact patterns, the government’s return of the cash seized in California was a hint the Kansas case would be resolved in similar fashion.

As a reporter covering breaking news and legal affairs, I want to demystify often-complex legal issues in order to expose the visible and invisible ways they affect people’s lives. I cover issues of justice and equity, and seek to ensure that significant and often under-covered developments get the attention they deserve so that KCUR listeners and readers are equipped with the knowledge they need to act as better informed citizens. Email me at dan@kcur.org.
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