Company Sued Sheriff and FBI For $1.2M in Illegally Seized Cannabis Money

A national armored vehicle company is suing the FBI and San Bernardino Sheriff's Office for illegally seizing more than $1 million in marijuana profits legally earned by various dispensaries.

Lawyers representing Empyreal Logistics, a Pennsylvania-based company that transports money for various clients including cannabis dispensaries, accused law enforcement officials of "scheming" to illegally pull over the vehicles in order to seize the money inside.

The civil suit, which was filed on January 14, referred to the police seizure as "highway robbery" and claimed that the company's vehicles were stopped and searched by sheriff's deputies five times, three of which happened in the past eight weeks.

"The real reason Empyreal is being targeted is because it is very profitable for these law-enforcement agencies to seize the cash proceeds that Empyreal is transporting and keep that money using civil forfeiture," the lawsuit stated.

Civil forfeiture, also known as judicial forfeiture or asset forfeiture, allows law enforcement to seize and keep the property and large amounts of money if they suspect it was obtained illegally or is being used for illegal activity.

Although civil forfeiture varies depending on the jurisdiction, many states do not require proof of the owner's guilt to seize property.

The Empyreal vehicles do not carry cannabis products, only large amounts of money for various cannabis dispensaries in multiple states.

"Together, these law-enforcement agencies are targeting armored vehicles owned by Empyreal because those vehicles are transporting cash proceeds from state-legal medical and adult-use cannabis dispensaries to legitimate financial institutions such as banks and credit unions," the complaint stated. "Notably, Empyreal never transports any actual cannabis. Empyreal also provides cash transport services for traditional, non-cannabis businesses, such as restaurants and convenience stores."

The lawsuit claimed federal agents and local police knew the company catered toward the cannabis industry and allegedly targeted the vehicles although the businesses are state-legal. It also stated that there was no legitimate reason for San Bernardino police to target a business that operates lawfully under California law.

Empyreal's problems with law enforcement are not unique to California, though. Authorities in Kansas seized the profits from Empyreal vehicles twice, once in May and again in September 2021.

Due to these stops, the company has stopped traveling through Kansas and has also halted business operations in San Bernardino. The company is also seeking the return of $165,000 cash.

The Institute of Justice noted that each time authorities seized legal proceeds, they "handed them over to federal agencies to take through federal forfeiture procedures." According to IJ, up to 80 percent of proceeds taken through the federal "equitable sharing" program would be returned to local sheriffs if successfully forfeited.

Sheriffs are able to spend the money as they please. If successfully forfeited, up to 80% of the proceeds taken through the federal "equitable sharing" program would then return to local sheriffs to spend as they please.

"These profit-motivated stops serve no legitimate purpose, exceed law enforcement's rightful authority and violate the Constitution," IJ wrote. "Unless the court brings an end to these unlawful stops, searches and seizures, Empyreal will not be able to continue its lawful business.

"That's why the Institute for Justice is representing Empyreal in a federal lawsuit challenging the actions of the San Bernardino County Sheriff's office and the federal agencies that are targeting Empyreal's vehicles for stops, searches, seizures and forfeitures. Empyreal isn't being targeted because it is doing anything wrong; it's being targeted because law enforcement knows Empyreal is providing armored car services for state-licensed cannabis businesses"

Police pulling over car
A Pennsylvania-based company is suing the FBI and a California Sheriff's Office after more than $1 million of property was seized during various traffic stops. KenTannenbaum/iStock