On May 6, a joint statement was released stating that both Empyreal and the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department in Southern California “understand that each [was] acting in good faith when the stops were conducted and have come to an understanding that will enable both sides to move forward amicably.”
Empyreal transport vans were stopped by Sheriff Shannon Dicus’ deputies in November, December, and January, and had seized a total of $1.1 million in legal cannabis sales. The U.S. Department of Justice’s equitable sharing program allows the sheriff’s department to retain up to 80% of money collected through civil forfeitures. Although the state of California prohibits law enforcement from seizing legal cannabis money, Dicus transferred the seized money to the FBI, claiming that it was evidence in an ongoing investigation. The federal government has since agreed to return 100% of the money seized, although the lawsuit against Dicus continued until recently.
According to The San Bernardino Sun, Dicus believed that the seizure that his department conducted were legitimate. On Nov. 16, the Empyreal vehicle, a Ford van, was driving six feet behind a semi-truck while pulling a trailer. “During the stop, the deputy made further observations, including hearing inconsistent statements made by the driver and company representatives, that led the deputy to believe the contents of the van were illicit proceeds of unlawful drug sales,” Dicus said of the incident. Based on those Deputy J. Franco obtained a search warrant to investigate, and seized $700,000 collected from four state-licensed cannabis businesses.
A similar incident occurred on Dec. 9 with the same Empyreal Ford van, which was changing lanes without signaling. There was also a document that instructed the driver how to respond to law enforcement if pulled over. “Specifically, the document instructed the driver to ‘never say the words cannabis or marijuana’ and ‘never say the names of the banks or clients we service.’” On that date, the van was transporting $350,000. An Empyreal van was pulled over a third time on Jan. 6, but was only carrying rolled coins that weren’t affiliated with the cannabis industry.
Empyreal launched a lawsuit on Jan. 14 with the U.S. District Court, demanding that Sheriff Shannon Dicus, as well as FBI Director Christopher Wray and Drug Enforcement Administration Administrator Anne Milgram stop targeting Empyreal, claiming that the seizure of the company’s legitimate sales was “highway robbery.” At the time, Dicus’ believed that the lawsuit was “no more than a special-interest crusade and a blatant attempt to interfere with ongoing local criminal investigations.”
The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department addressed this description on May 6, sharing that while the department will continue to work against “illegal marijuana grows and criminal enterprises,” Empyreal is not included in those efforts. “Both sides also acknowledge that Empyreal is part of the solution to help with financial transparency and that San Bernardino Deputies are not highway robbers as previously reported in the media,” the department wrote in a press release on May 6.
Empyreal hired Injustice for Justice, which is a nonprofit public interest law firm that specializes in defending cases for civil forfeiture victims to lead the lawsuit. According to a press statement from Senior Attorney Dan Alban, it’s a welcome win for the firm and Empyreal. “We are pleased to have helped Empyreal achieve a successful result and return to business operations in San Bernardino County,” said Alban. “We will continue to challenge the use of civil forfeiture nationwide at the state and federal level.”
Empyreal CEO Deirdra O’Gorman also released a statement, stating that he was pleased that his company and the sheriff’s department were able to come to an agreement on the matter. “Empyreal, our financial institution clients and their state-licensed cannabis customers operate within the law, which is why we chose to bring a legal challenge to the seizures in San Bernardino County,” said O’Gorman. “Now that the funds have been returned and after meeting with the Sheriff, we are confident that we can continue serving state-legal businesses without future disruptions.”