Steve Oates, a medical marijuana patient residing in Goodyear, Arizona, was raided by members of the local police department, DEA, and SWAT Team in March of 2013. Like many medical marijuana patients, he didn’t feel comfortable asking strangers or surfing Craigslist to find out where he could obtain his cannabis, so applied to grow his own. He was approved by the state in what was a pretty “seemless, easy process” and began growing his medicine in a room in his guest house. Later on he met other patients who desired to grow their own cannabis as well, so made room for them to grow with him.
The raid on his home took place at 6:30 AM. Oates recalls being awakened to the sound of, “‘bang! bang! bang!’ on the door, and next thing you know you hear the crash of a battering ram.” The police confiscated more than he was legally allowed to possess, though not all of the cannabis belonged to him. This was a moot point in the court’s view.
After preliminary hearings, the court and prosecutor told Oates that he had two options: accept a plea that said he possessed under two pounds of marijuana with no jail time, or face a trial that would leave the judge no choice but to send him to prison for 3-5 years if convicted. Oates, who feared what would happen to his family if he were locked up, took the plea. Little did he know, the terrifying raid and criminal process would be the least of his problems.
The Goodyear police department brought the case to the Arizona Attorney General, Tom Horne, who then slammed Oates with more than $455,000 in civil asset forfeiture. Civil Asset Forfeiture was initially intended for major drug dealers, heads of cartels, and Al Capone types. It basically means that the government can seize any property or finances that it feels have a connection to illegal activity. The government then sues the property, instead of the individual, so there doesn’t have to be a conviction in order for them to seize, and often times, keep it.
Today, police across the country slam anyone who has been caught with even the smallest amount of any drug with civil asset forfeiture. In fact, the practice of civil asset forfeiture is how many police departments fund themselves and are able to purchase fancy cars and equipment that was intended for the military.
This is especially true in Arizona, where police departments get to keep any property or finances seized for themselves, unlike in other states. Not to say that police in other states haven’t found a loophole to allow them to keep what is not theirs (see: Equitable Sharing-How Local Cops Get Around State Law to Steal Your Stuff).
Between the property, cash, bank accounts, and legal fees, Oates says he’s lost closer to $600,000 as a result of this raid on his collective medical marijuana grow. Oates’s attorney argues that various agencies targeted his client instead of going after truly dangerous criminals, gangs, or drug dealers who are operating across state lines because they knew he had money and was an easy target. This has become a rampant problem that plagues police departments across our country, with violent crime on the rise, and over 50% of our jails and prisons filled with nonviolent drug offenders. Reflecting on Oates and the increased militarization of our police, we must ask ourselves who is playing the role of criminal and who the victim?