“They knew it was medical hashish and that they might be seizing medical hashish proceeds, and they aren’t purported to be spending any funds to do this.”
Robison all of a sudden 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 visitors cease, a collection of occasions unspooled that resulted in additional than $1.2 million being seized in what an lawyer describes in a courtroom submitting as “the repeated and persevering with freeway robberies of armored automobiles by authorities brokers.”
The following day, Could 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 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 accordance with Empyreal, the armored automobiles are transporting money from state-licensed marijuana dispensaries to monetary establishments, resembling 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 courtroom denied Empyreal’s request for a short lived restraining order.
“The courtroom is compelled to precise its issues concerning Empyreal’s litigation ways,” District Decide John W. Holcomb wrote.
Holcomb suggested attorneys for Empyreal to cease chopping procedural corners and reminded them of their obligation to be candid with the courtroom.
Data gathered from interviews, courtroom paperwork, police stories, and a viewing of the dashboard digicam video expose battle between federal and state legal guidelines concerning 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. As we speak it operates in 28 states.
“I made a decision to start out Empyreal with hopes of attempting to repair among the challenges that I skilled on the opposite aspect of the service mannequin, being a monetary establishment working with armored automotive corporations,” 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 all the pieces that we do and each a part of the equation for us, ensuring that we’re following the foundations.”
O’Gorman mentioned many individuals assume there are not any banks or different monetary establishments that can settle for cash from marijuana dispensaries. There are various that can—not less than 700 nationwide, she mentioned—however the banks impose rigorous reporting and record-keeping necessities.
“It’s a reasonably hefty compliance checklist,” 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 this stuff are scrutinized at a stage 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 change into a high-stakes exercise. In accordance with Kansas Bureau of Investigation knowledge, 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 circumstances which have been resolved. It might probably take years for the disposition of seized money and autos to be decided, and it isn’t 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 and not using a legal case being filed, in accordance with knowledge supplied by the KBI.
Officers want solely exhibit a connection between the property and against the law. However they’re purported to have a authentic cause for making a visitors cease.
“The Fourth Modification requires not less than cheap suspicion or possible trigger to cease a car,” mentioned Dan Alban, senior lawyer with the nonprofit Institute for Justice, which helps signify Empyreal within the California lawsuit. “The best way freeway interdiction works is you get behind the car and also you give you the excuse to drag it over… Should you comply with somebody lengthy sufficient, they will commit some minor visitors infraction.”
Confusion over drug legal guidelines
A request filed beneath the Kansas Open Information Act for copies of stories and recordings made by the dashboard digicam had been partially granted. There was no offense report written for the Could 17 cease, however a replica of the offense report for the Could 18 cease and seizure was supplied, and a reporter was allowed to view the recorded video.
In the course of the first cease, it didn’t take Robison lengthy to drag 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 driving force rapidly defined she was on her technique 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 the right way 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 aim 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 need to be sure that all people understands.”
On this case, that effort was not profitable. The driving force’s candor set off a flurry of calls between Robison, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Legal professional’s Workplace in Wichita, which will be heard on the video recording.
After some preliminary head-scratching, Drug Enforcement Administration agent Bryson Wheeler admitted to be puzzled.
“I don’t assume 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 cause 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 lawyer normal 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. Primarily based on my skilled expertise, there isn’t a regulation indicating that proceeds change into unlawful once they go away a state.”
Within the telephone name to Robison, Wheeler continues to attempt to give you a technique to determine precisely what is unlawful 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 strictly what the coaching of the corporate’s drivers is meant to keep away from.
“We solely work with monetary establishments…that supply providers 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 convey 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 had 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 among 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 combat the seizures, however regulation enforcement ought to ‘crush each one in all 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 visitors cease took almost three hours. The sheriff’s workplace seized 5 luggage of money that, in accordance with the offense report filed in reference to the case, contained $165,855.
Harming authorized enterprise
Alban, the Institute for Justice lawyer, hopes to indicate the DEA failed to remain in its lane.
Federal regulation prohibits the U.S. Division of Justice—the mother or father 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 connected to DOJ funding yearly since.
“I feel on this case [Rohrabacher-Farr] presents a very major problem for them as a result of they knew from the time of the Could 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 recognized 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 places 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 irrespective of the place the seizure takes place, it harms legally working hashish companies.
After the Could 17 cease, “they went and did the surveillance on Could 18 in Kansas Metropolis of the Empyreal car choosing up the proceeds from these dispensaries,” Alban mentioned.
“From the very get-go, they knew it was medical hashish and that they might be seizing medical hashish proceeds, and they aren’t purported to be spending any funds to do this, together with spending cash on surveillance outdoors of medical hashish dispensaries in Missouri,” Alban mentioned.
On September 3, 2021, the U.S. Legal professional’s Workplace filed a civil forfeiture case in federal courtroom in Kansas Metropolis, asking the courtroom to let it preserve $165,620 taken from the Empyreal armored automotive.
Requests for interviews with regulation enforcement officers had 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. Legal professional’s Workplace.
Danielle Thomas, public info officer for the U.S. Legal professional’s Workplace in Wichita, declined to reply any questions.
“We don’t talk about open circumstances,” she mentioned.