In March 2013, Steve Oates’ home in Goodyear, Ariz. was stormed
by police, SWAT, and DEA agents because of a marijuana grow room in
the guest house.
“It was like something you see in the movies. It was 6:30 in the
morning, and basically you hear ‘bang! bang! bang!’ on the door,
and next thing you know you hear the crash of a battering ram,”
Oates’ doctor had recommended medicinal marijuana for Oates’
chronic back pain, so he attained a medical marijuana card with
cultivation rights. Dispensaries were still few and far between at
the time, and Oates didn’t trust Craigslist for his
“I felt like the next alternative was to grow it ourselves,”
says Oates. Oates met a few other patients who shared concerns
about underground marijuana channels, and they decided to start
growing together. Oates had their entire supply during the raid,
which ended up being more than the permitted amount that he could
grow with cultivation rights. He pled guilty to possessing under
two pounds of marijuana.
But the conviction ended up being the smallest price that Oates
had to pay. Goodyear Police Department brought Oates’ case to the
Attorney General, who consequently slapped Oates with over $455,000
in civil asset forfeiture. Civil
asset forfeiture is when the government can seize property and
finances that they suspect have a connection to illicit activity.
However, they sue the property instead of the person, so there
doesn’t have to be a related conviction.
“That’s what they’re claiming, is that the market value of the
sales that he allegedly made was $455,000,” says Oates’ attorney
John Moore. “They don’t have any proof or any evidence that the
property that they are trying to forfeit is related to the crime of
his possession of marijuana for sale.”
Oates says that between property taken, bank accounts seized,
and legal fees, he has actually lost over $600,000, but that he
would “rather spend every dollar on an attorney than just let [law
enforcement] have it.”
Moore is helping Oates fight to get his assets back, yet says
it’s easier said than done.
“In a typical civil case, it’s the plaintiff that has the burden
of proof. But in a civil forfeiture case, it turns out it’s
actually the defendant that has to show where this money came
from,” says Moore. “We have to show by preponderance of the
evidence, that this money that they are trying to forfeit came from
Moore adds that Arizona
has a direct incentive to utilize asset forfeiture because
unlike other states, Arizona law enforcement gets to keep seized
funds for their own departments.
“Their focus is on raising revenues instead of actual law
enforcement itself,” says Moore. “Instead of going after real drug
dealers who are transporting across state lines or criminal gangs
that are creating great crime and personal injury to people,
they’re going after an individual because they know he had funds in
his bank account.”
About 5:45 minutes.
Written and produced by Tracy Oppenheimer, who also narrates.
Camera by Zach Weissmueller. Featuring “Vibe Drive” by Podington
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