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Tony Jalali is furious. A fireball of righteous Persian-American energy, he jabs the Varsity Burgers table hard with his short fingers to emphasize his many points. Apparently he’s moved past his previous publicity-shy phase and is now speaking out and fighting back fearlessly (although he still won’t let me photograph him.) And the moment I turn around, he’s out front of the restaurant, telling his story to the LA Times’ tall, dour celebrity columnist Steve Lopez (portrayed by Robert Downey in The Soloist.)
That’s fine, I’ve been following this story quietly for a long time and I can add in a lot that Steve left out the other day. But first the basics:
Tony immigrated from Iran in 1978 just before the “Glorious Revolution,” became a citizen and a computer engineer, and married a dentist named Morgan. The two of them saved their money as Americans are supposed to do, and invested their savings in a $1.5 million office building on the northwest corner of Ball and Magnolia, to see them through their retirement.
This building has twelve units, which he has rented out to dozens of businesses over the last ten years. Two of those businesses have been medical marijuana dispensaries, just as we California voters overwhelmingly approved with our Compassionate Use Act back in 1996.
Unlike his attorneys and this writer, Tony is not some great champion of medical marijuana. [Update - he's starting to become one now, he says.] At every point he believed he was just following the law – especially important to a guy who has a government security clearance for his job. When he learned that the first club he rented to – Remedy Tree – was illegally allowing pot-smoking on the premises, he threw them out unceremoniously.
But it was the second club, the carefully law-abiding ReLeaf Health and Wellness, which for some reason got the attention of the Anaheim PD and the Federal DEA. As soon as Tony realized he was breaking federal law and risking his property by renting to them, he gave them the boot as well, but it was too late – he was given no notice, the DEA and city were intent on seizing his building, his life savings.
Since then he’s been fighting back – with some success so far – but the stress of fighting the Federal Government has caused his wife Morgan to develop heart problems.
Civil Forfeiture and “Equitable Sharing”
As we all know by now, there’s a clash between California state law which allows medical pot under certain strictures, and federal law which does not. But between statements from President Obama, AG Eric Holder, and the celebrated “Ogden Memo” which instructed local US attorneys not to enforce federal pot law in states that had moved past it, as well as the fact that both these clubs had Anaheim-approved business licenses, Tony Jalali assumed he was breaking no law and was in no danger.
He was also unaware of a great lucrative scheme that has been going on a few years now – what’s called Civil Forfeiture, or Asset Forfeiture, and “Equitable Sharing” between the federal government and certain municipalities. With civil forfeiture, the government or law enforcement is entitled to seize assets that are the result of criminal activity – the classic example is when a police department gets to auction off a sports car that belonged to a gangster or drug pusher. To make the leap from that scenario to seizing a $1.5 million building because a SMALL FRACTION of the rent for that building came from an activity that was possibly illegal under Federal law but sanctioned under state law is a monstrous perversion of the concept.
“Equitable sharing” is the cute phrase describing the formula by which the federal authorities and the city share the spoils of a forfeiture, while rubbing their hands, licking their chops, and flipping off us California voters. In this case, if Tony loses his property and it’s sold, Anaheim will be getting 80% ($1.2 million) while the Feds get 20% (300K.)
One of the most un-American aspects of civil forfeiture is the fact that a landlord like Tony Jalali is punished, robbed, without ever having been convicted of a crime – in a grotesque reversal of Western traditions of justice, he is presumed guilty unless he can prove his innocence.
This is why Tony continues to fight even though the Feds have made offers to back off. He’s been given the option, which he considers unacceptable, to keep his building if he 1) agrees that the government was correct in trying to seize it; 2) agrees that he’ll lose it for good if ANY illegal activity occurs there (what if some gangbanger happened by and tagged the wall!) and 3) agrees to searches at any time with no warning.
But Tony continues to fight not only because he finds these conditions unmerited and insulting, but because he and his lawyers are aiming to establish, in a precedent-setting case, that Civil Forfeiture as currently practiced is unconstitutional, and that property cannot be seized until and unless the owner is convicted of a crime. Tony Jalali is fighting for the rights of all American property owners, and deserves all our support.
The Kush Expo and Anaheim’s Hypocrisy
All the wags point out, with outrage and amusement, the hypocrisy apparent in an inhumane town that “banned” medical dispensaries six years ago (while, as we saw, continuing to grant them business licenses), that persecutes law-abiding property owners like Tony Jalali when there’s a profit to be had in it… and yet makes millions of dollars each year off the very hedonistic and garish “Kush Expo” that comes to the Convention Center each summer. (To be clear, the money is not “made” by the city treasury itself, but by the resort interests who really run the town – same difference to them.)
Advertised all over the Southland as “the world’s biggest marijuana festival,” the Kush Expo costs $20 to attend and draws hordes of stoners and opportunists. Vendors offer bongs, hookahs, hydroponic equipment and nutrients for growing your own cannabis plants. Awards are offered for the best strains of weed in Southern California. Attendees can get high as a kite smoking in the “medication area” tents – you do need a prescription, but – not to worry – there are doctors on site just for the purpose! (In the kind of cavalier abuse of the system that makes your average citizen skeptical of the existence of actual medicinal necessity.) This year there was even a “Hot Kush Girl” contest!
But what if Anaheim’s embrace of the Kush Expo and persecution of medical pot is not merely the simple hypocrisy of a money-grubbing town, what if there’s a connection between the two? What if the Kush Expo is an integral part of an Anaheim plan of entrapment? You KNOW the Expo is full of cops, undercover and otherwise. We also know that it features workshops instructing aspiring owners of dispensaries and collectives how to get themselves a location – how to “dispense” with a landlord’s legal worries, making it likely, that if he owns his building mortgage-free, he could end up in the same dire straits as Tony Jalali. We know that, even with its “ban” in place, the city gives business licenses to dispensaries, as they did to the two who rented Tony’s building. It’s rumored, and not far-fetched to think, that future profitable Civil Forfeiture cases are scoped out from their very beginnings, at the Kush Expo.
A Drug Policy driven not by Public Safety but Greed
In the last five years Anaheim has taken in $21.5 million in civil forfeitures, as revealed in documents obtained by Jalali’s legal team and reported by the Weekly‘s Nick Schou – $4.3 million a year dedicated to new toys for the voracious police department.
As the Institute for Justice attorney representing Tony tells Schou, “Allowing the police to keep the proceeds of forfeited property gives them a direct financial incentive to use civil forfeiture… Fair and impartial law enforcement cannot exist as long as we allow this policing for profit.” I would even say that the fact that a police force to a large extent thrives off drug profits distorts its choices, and motivates police to allow the continued sale of drugs MORE dangerous than pot, as long as there’s a payoff to look forward to down the road.
Most landlords falling afoul of the city for renting to dispensaries have been given the option – and have taken it – of paying a hefty fine and keeping their building. Why was Jalali treated differently, why did the government try to seize HIS building without warning or alternative? The answer is obvious - because he owns the building outright, clear of any mortgage. So that was $1.5 million just sitting there for the taking, as far as law enforcement was concerned. This isn’t drug policy, this is gangsterism of the government, enabled by an anachronistic prohibition that demands to have a fork stuck in it.
This might be the place to bring you up to date on the Anaheim case. (Tony is fighting the DEA on the “lis pendens” to keep them from seizing his building, while he fights the City on a “nuisance abatement” charge which justifies the lis pendens.) The Judge hearing the latter case was completely underwhelmed by the City’s evidence that Tony’s building was a nuisance – this evidence consisting of a $37 pot sale to an undercover cop USING A VALID DOCTOR’S NOTE. “We are NOT seizing a man’s $1.5 million building for a $37 pot sale,” snorted the Judge, and ordered them to come back with something better. Since then, police have broken in to Tony’s building at least once, late at night – a landlord can tell – no doubt looking for some elusive criminality.
We hope the police resist the urge to plant anything. We realize what a temptation that $1.2 million is to the APD – just think of the military hardware it could purchase, to be trotted out next time there’s “unrest!”
Can Anaheim (please) keep being the Town so GREEDY
it Screws Things Up For Everybody Else?
The first wisecrack you might think of, if you’re a close follower (as we are at this blog) of current Anaheim swindles, is that heists of law-abiding citizens like Tony Jalali might be one way that the corrupt city can afford to keep giving away hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to hoteliers, Curt Pringle clients, Disney, and the Angels.
And, on that note, you might also crack wise that if Jalali had only had the foresight to hire Pringle to lobby for him, the city would not only be not taking his building, but adding floors to it for free.
What *I* think of is how, by many accounts, it was Anaheim’s bottomless, unparalleled greed that tanked California’s Enterprise Zone program so that now no California cities have it any more – and good riddance!
We can only hope it works the same with Civil Forfeiture – that Anaheim’s outrageous grab for Tony’s building leads to no other towns in the country being able to seize property again, without the owner being convicted of a crime. These are outcomes that an Anaheimer could be perversely proud of, maybe, if he squints really hard.
Now Let’s Name Some Names.
There was one comment I liked in the comments section to Steve Lopez’ Times story, which concluded:
“[you need] to IDENTIFY the specific person in the government who decided single-handedly that he and his buddies were going to steal that man’s building. The best way to deal with criminal government employees is to IDENTIFY THEM… and not just refer to their criminal acts as that of ‘the government’ or ‘the DEA.’ “
That makes sense to me, after all it is human beings who do these things. So here are three of the key government decision-makers who decided, and persisted, in going after Tony Jalali this way, when they could easily have decided not to:
To be continued SOON…
Has Eric Holder Pulled the Rug Out from Under Steve Welk?
Senator Leahy’s Hearings Yesterday
Update on the ReLeaf Health & Wellness Case: We Need Money!