“They knew it was medical hashish and that they’d be seizing medical hashish proceeds, and they don’t seem to be alleged to be spending any funds to try this.”
Robison instantly pulls out into the left lane, accelerates quickly and inside a few miles pulls behind a white van, which instantly strikes onto the shoulder and stops. As he walks as much as the passenger-side window of the van, which seems to be an armored car, he tells dispatchers he believes the van has Colorado plates.
Robison tells the motive force he pulled her over as a result of the tag was partially obscured, then asks what she is hauling.
From this site visitors cease, a sequence of occasions unspooled that resulted in additional than $1.2 million being seized in what an legal professional describes in a court docket submitting as “the repeated and persevering with freeway robberies of armored automobiles by authorities brokers.”
The following day, Might 18, 2021, Robison once more stopped the van, this time seizing greater than $165,000. By that point, regulation enforcement officers had positioned tag numbers of autos owned by Empyreal Logistics, the armored car firm, right into a nationwide database that permits high-speed computerized license plate readers to scan site visitors and spot the autos.
On Nov. 16, the San Bernardino County, California, Sheriff’s Workplace stopped one other Empyreal armored automotive and seized about $700,000. On Dec. 9, San Bernardino officers once more stopped an Empyreal armored automotive, this time seizing about $350,000.
The premise for the seizures? In keeping with Empyreal, the armored automobiles are transporting money from state-licensed marijuana dispensaries to monetary establishments, akin to credit score unions or banks.
“Shocked isn’t the half of it,” mentioned Dierdra O’Gorman, Empyreal’s founder and CEO, describing her response on studying that the cash from one of many firm’s armored automobiles had been seized in Kansas. “I’ve been a banker my total profession—26 years within the banking business.”
After the California seizures, Empyreal filed a federal lawsuit towards a number of regulation enforcement companies demanding the federal authorities cease these “freeway robberies.” On Monday, the court docket denied Empyreal’s request for a brief restraining order.
“The court docket is compelled to precise its issues relating to Empyreal’s litigation ways,” District Decide John W. Holcomb wrote.
Holcomb suggested attorneys for Empyreal to cease slicing procedural corners and reminded them of their obligation to be candid with the court docket.
Data gathered from interviews, court docket paperwork, police studies, and a viewing of the dashboard digicam video expose battle between federal and state legal guidelines relating to marijuana, and the eagerness of regulation enforcement officers to justify their urge to “smash” Empyreal into submission.
Dealing with marijuana cash
O’Gorman established Empyreal in June 2018 within the Denver space. In the present day it operates in 28 states.
“I made a decision to begin Empyreal with hopes of attempting to repair a number of the challenges that I skilled on the opposite aspect of the service mannequin, being a monetary establishment working with armored automotive firms,” O’Gorman mentioned. “I’ve prided myself on my profession being centered on compliance and serving to monetary establishments with their Financial institution Secrecy Act and Anti-Cash Laundering [Act] compliance. It’s been every part that we do and each a part of the equation for us, ensuring that we’re following the principles.”
O’Gorman mentioned many individuals suppose there aren’t any banks or different monetary establishments that may settle for cash from marijuana dispensaries. There are various that may—no less than 700 nationwide, she mentioned—however the banks impose rigorous reporting and record-keeping necessities.
“It’s a reasonably hefty compliance listing,” she mentioned.
There are background checks, verification of the place cash comes from and the place it goes, and monitoring of who will get paid.
“All of these items are scrutinized at a degree that in my 26-year banking profession I’ve by no means seen earlier than,” she mentioned.
O’Gorman mentioned she is cautious to work solely with monetary establishments that comply with these stringent tips.
The seizures by regulation enforcement come up from the truth that whereas 18 states have legalized leisure marijuana use, and its medicinal use is authorized in 36 states, the federal authorities nonetheless considers each medicinal and leisure marijuana use unlawful.
So does Kansas.
Seizing money, autos and weapons passing by Kansas has grow to be a high-stakes exercise. In keeping with Kansas Bureau of Investigation information, Kansas regulation enforcement companies since 2019 have seized $8 million, almost all from motorists, with the Kansas Freeway Patrol accounting for half of the forfeitures.
That’s from solely the instances which have been resolved. It could possibly take years for the disposition of seized money and autos to be decided, and it’s not till disposition that particulars are reported to the KBI.
Civil forfeitures are a course of that permits regulation enforcement companies to grab money, autos, private property, actual property and weapons they think have been concerned in against the law. They don’t need to arrest the proprietor or convict them of against the law. Half the cash seized in Kansas since 2019—greater than $4 million—was forfeited with out a legal case being filed, in keeping with information offered by the KBI.
Officers want solely reveal a connection between the property and against the law. However they’re alleged to have a professional purpose for making a site visitors cease.
“The Fourth Modification requires no less than cheap suspicion or possible trigger to cease a car,” mentioned Dan Alban, senior legal professional with the nonprofit Institute for Justice, which helps characterize Empyreal within the California lawsuit. “The way in which freeway interdiction works is you get behind the car and also you give you the excuse to tug it over… If you happen to comply with somebody lengthy sufficient, they will commit some minor site visitors infraction.”
Confusion over drug legal guidelines
A request filed underneath the Kansas Open Data Act for copies of studies and recordings made by the dashboard digicam have been partially granted. There was no offense report written for the Might 17 cease, however a duplicate of the offense report for the Might 18 cease and seizure was offered, and a reporter was allowed to view the recorded video.
In the course of the first cease, it didn’t take Robison lengthy to tug over the Empyreal van. And he wasted no time asking the motive force what was within the van, and the place she was going. The motive force rapidly defined she was on her solution to decide up money from marijuana dispensaries in Missouri and drive it again to Colorado.
She defined precisely how the cash is saved and invited Robison to see the within for himself. O’Gorman mentioned all the corporate’s drivers endure intensive coaching in find out how to work together with regulation enforcement. The corporate’s chief of operations is a former sheriff.
“We’re very clear about what we’re doing,” O’Gorman mentioned.
A elementary objective is to assist regulation enforcement perceive the aim of her armored automobiles.
“We all know that it’s a sophisticated patchwork of guidelines and rules,” she mentioned. “We wish to be sure that all people understands.”
On this case, that effort was not profitable. The motive force’s candor set off a flurry of calls between Robison, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Lawyer’s Workplace in Wichita, which could be heard on the video recording.
After some preliminary head-scratching, Drug Enforcement Administration agent Bryson Wheeler admitted to be puzzled.
“I don’t suppose that’s essentially unlawful,” he advised Robison. “It’s simply unusual as hell. It looks like they’re a financial institution working as not a financial institution.”
The authorities are conscious that medicinal marijuana is authorized in Missouri, however a couple of minutes later Wheeler throws out a purpose why the exercise is prohibited.
“Wheeler calls officer Robison and claims that hashish proceeds should keep within the state the place hashish is authorized and can’t be transported throughout state strains,” mentioned David Bass, a former deputy legal professional basic in California who labored within the Monetary Fraud and Particular Prosecutions Unit, in a declaration filed on behalf of Empyreal within the California lawsuit. “That is incorrect. Based mostly on my skilled expertise, there isn’t a regulation indicating that proceeds grow to be unlawful once they go away a state.”
Within the cellphone name to Robison, Wheeler continues to attempt to give you a solution to determine precisely what is against the law in regards to the armored automotive taking cash from Missouri companies to deposit in a monetary establishment in Colorado.
At one level within the dialog, “Wheeler claims that Empyreal’s operations are bulk money smuggling,” Bass mentioned in his declaration.
O’Gorman mentioned the confusion by regulation enforcement is precisely what the coaching of the corporate’s drivers is meant to keep away from.
“We solely work with monetary establishments…that provide companies to hashish companies,” she mentioned. “We’ll have Empyreal go decide up the funds after they’ve been validated by the financial institution or credit score union, after which we deliver these funds again to monetary establishments. So we’re working with them solely after the entire due diligence has been finished to be sure that these funds got here from lawful…gross sales.”
She was baffled by the cash laundering hypothesis.
“In the event that they thought there was cash laundering occurring, why wouldn’t they’ve contacted the monetary establishment?” she requested. “Why wouldn’t they’ve confiscated the funds on the enterprise?”
‘Smash them into submission’
The conversations between Robison and Wheeler grew to become animated as they reassured themselves this was a genuinely unlawful operation, and it was clear Empyreal’s armored automobiles have been ferrying money in half the states within the nation.
They mentioned placing tag numbers from Empyreal’s armored automobiles right into a nationwide database that permits regulation enforcement officers to make use of high-speed license plate readers to identify Empyreal vans throughout the nation.
“Smash them into submission,” Wheeler mentioned.
Bass described a number of the dialog in his declaration.
“After deciding to put all of Empyreal’s autos into the [license plate reader], agent Wheeler notes that Empyreal will struggle the seizures, however regulation enforcement ought to ‘crush each one in every of their automobiles that they’ll determine,’ ” Bass mentioned. “Agreeing with agent Wheeler’s plan, across the 36:50 mark of the recording, officer (Robison) states, ‘We’ll begin taking all of them down directly.’ ”
Robison then advised the Empyreal driver she was free to go, however not earlier than volunteering to take away the offending license plate body.
The following day, because the van headed again to Colorado after making stops to select up money from Missouri dispensaries, Robison pulled the van over close to the Enterprise exit on I-70. The site visitors cease took almost three hours. The sheriff’s workplace seized 5 baggage of money that, in keeping with the offense report filed in reference to the case, contained $165,855.
Harming authorized enterprise
Alban, the Institute for Justice legal professional, hopes to point out the DEA failed to remain in its lane.
Federal regulation prohibits the U.S. Division of Justice—the dad or mum company of the DEA and FBI, amongst others—from spending cash to forestall states from “implementing their very own state legal guidelines that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.”
The prohibition was initially generally known as the Rohrabacher–Farr Modification and have become regulation in 2014. The restriction has been hooked up to DOJ funding yearly since.
“I believe on this case [Rohrabacher-Farr] presents a very major problem for them as a result of they knew from the time of the Might 17 cease that the motive force was going to go to medical hashish dispensaries in Kansas Metropolis, Missouri,” Alban mentioned. “They’ve the names of these dispensaries on the manifest. They need to have identified that Missouri doesn’t have leisure hashish. The one hashish dispensaries working legally with a state license in Missouri are going to be medical hashish dispensaries.”
The Kansas Metropolis Star reported in November that the manifest for the journey lists 4 medical marijuana dispensaries in Missouri: BesaMe Wellness in Smithville and two From the Earth areas in Kansas Metropolis and one other in Independence.
The truth that the cease was in Kansas, which has not legalized marijuana use, is of no consequence, Alban mentioned, as a result of regardless of the place the seizure takes place, it harms legally working hashish companies.
After the Might 17 cease, “they went and did the surveillance on Might 18 in Kansas Metropolis of the Empyreal car selecting up the proceeds from these dispensaries,” Alban mentioned.
“From the very get-go, they knew it was medical hashish and that they’d be seizing medical hashish proceeds, and they don’t seem to be alleged to be spending any funds to try this, together with spending cash on surveillance exterior of medical hashish dispensaries in Missouri,” Alban mentioned.
On September 3, 2021, the U.S. Lawyer’s Workplace filed a civil forfeiture case in federal court docket in Kansas Metropolis, asking the court docket to let it maintain $165,620 taken from the Empyreal armored automotive.
Requests for interviews with regulation enforcement officers have been refused. The Dickinson County Sheriff’s Workplace mentioned the case has been turned over to the Drug Enforcement Administration. A DEA spokesperson directed all inquiries to the U.S. Lawyer’s Workplace.
Danielle Thomas, public data officer for the U.S. Lawyer’s Workplace in Wichita, declined to reply any questions.
“We don’t talk about open instances,” she mentioned.