FBI, San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department accused of breaking law in marijuana case

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Monday, Jan. 31. I’m Justin Ray.

An odd situation involving money from marijuana sales in California highlights the awkward tension between California’s progressive stance on cannabis and federal law.

The story begins in November, with an armored car carrying $712,000 in cash from licensed marijuana dispensaries. The car was heading to Barstow on a Mojave Desert freeway. The vehicle was pulled over by San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies. They interrogated the driver, seized the money and turned it over to the FBI.

The same driver was pulled over again a few weeks later. During that stop, deputies took an additional $350,000 belonging to legal pot stores and gave that cash to the FBI, too.

The agencies are not returning the money. In fact, the FBI is trying to confiscate the nearly $1.1-million bounty, which it may share with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department. The FBI claims the money is tied to federal drug or money-laundering crimes. No specified unlawful activities have been disclosed, and nobody has been charged with a crime.

Cash seizures by federal authorities

The case may have bigger implications.

Judge John W. Holcomb of U.S. District Court in Riverside is currently weighing a request by Empyreal Logistics, the company whose armored cars were emptied, for an emergency order to force both agencies to stop pulling over cars and taking money without evidence of unlawful activities. The company also wants the money back.

The sheriff’s department and federal authorities deny wrongdoing.

“This is among the more egregious forfeiture cases that we’ve ever seen,” said Dan Alban, senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, a libertarian group that fights forfeiture excesses nationwide and represents Empyreal in its lawsuit. Alban called the cash seizures a “very cynical attempt to exploit the differences between federal and state law” on marijuana.

The case is reminiscent of another in which the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles were forced to return tens of millions of dollars in cash and valuables seized by federal agents from hundreds of safe deposit boxes in Beverly Hills. The government was not able to provide evidence of wrongdoing after alleging that the money and goods were the result of criminal activity. It’s worth mentioning that some of that money belonged to owners of state-licensed marijuana businesses.

But there’s more to know about the case involving Empyreal vehicles pulled over by authorities, including more reasons why despite cannabis being legal in California it is difficult to operate in the industry in the state.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

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How California’s rooftop solar program became a victim of its own spectacular success. Launched in 1995 and pushed forward a decade later, when then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger set a target of 1 million solar installations, California’s program to spur the installation of rooftop solar panels has handily exceeded that goal. But that has caused problems that may prevent some people from obtaining them in the future. Fontana News Room

Former Governors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown, along with former Sen. Kevin Murray and other local elected officials, joined high school students, solar business leaders and workers, renewable energy advocates and community leaders at Buchanan High School on Dec. 12, 2019, to celebrate achieving 1 million solar roofs across California.

(Tomas Ovalle)


The Rams are headed to Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium. The L.A. football team defeated the San Francisco 49ers in a 20-17 thriller and will attempt to win their first Super Bowl in L.A. when they face the Cincinnati Bengals on Feb. 13. Fontana News Room

Now that Hollywood’s guilds have weighed in, do we have a best picture Oscar front-runner? “Judging from these groups’ slates, it would appear that reflecting the tastes of moviegoers — particularly from the PGA [Producers Guild of America], a body that has recognized box office hits in the past — is pretty low on the priority list this awards season,” Glenn Whipp says. Fontana News Room

Lady Gaga stars as Patrizia Reggiani sitting on a couch in a "House of Gucci" scene.

Lady Gaga stars as Patrizia Reggiani in Ridley Scott’s “House of Gucci.”

(Metro Goldwyn Mayer)

Scores of guns stolen from trains cause more problems in L.A. “I’ve got 24 years in LAPD, ex-military, secret clearance and I have to wait 10 days to get a new firearm and these guys are going into these containers with no locks and getting guns,” said Capt. German Hurtado. Fontana News Room

People rummaging through boxes on train tracks.

People rummage through boxes stolen from cargo containers littered on Union Pacific train tracks in the vicinity of Mission Boulevard on Jan. 15 in Los Angeles.

(Irfan Khan/Fontana News Room)

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The city of Gilroy on Friday finished the installation of a commemorative El Camino Real mission bell downtown over objections from local Native Americans. Members of the Amah Mutsun tribal band had protested the project, saying that it was a symbol of oppression at the hands of the Spanish padres who founded California’s string of Catholic missions from the 1760s to 1830s. “Tens of thousands of indigenous people forced to build the adobe churches succumbed to European diseases,” Julia Prodis Sulek writes. City council members who favored the project have declined Mercury News interview requests. Mercury News


The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office and Sheriff Scott Jones are being sued after an attack on a mentally ill inmate who suffered “catastrophic brain injuries.” Anthony Cravotta II, 45, is expected to remain on life support for the rest of his life after his cellmate attacked him Sept. 26, 2021, according to the lawsuit. The incident took place after Cravotta was assigned to the jail’s general population while waiting to be sent to a state hospital. The sheriff’s office said it does not comment on pending litigation. KCRA

In L.A. jail, health workers say deputies discourage vaccinations and deface COVID-19 signs. “L.A. County Sheriff’s deputies are flouting COVID-19 regulations and spreading lies about vaccines inside the beleaguered Twin Towers Correctional Facility,” LAist reported, citing multiple healthcare workers. One healthcare worker reportedly witnessed deputies trying to convince unvaccinated incarcerated people with mental illnesses to forgo the vaccine, telling them that it “makes you shed coronavirus.” LAist


How worried should we be about the new BA.2 Omicron subtype? California has identified a number of cases of BA.2, a sublineage of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus that’s gaining more attention. Here’s what we know. Fontana News Room

A healthcare worker administers a coronavirus PCR test to a person.

Jeffrey Toth administers a coronavirus PCR test in Colton, Calif.

(Irfan Khan/Fontana News Room)


Santa Cruz Starbucks workers filed a union petition with the National Labor Relations Board, becoming the first store in California to do so. Twenty-two out of 31 employees at the Starbucks reportedly signed union cards. The workers can start the process to unionize if they meet the minimum requirement of at least 30% of employees signing cards or a petition saying they desire to do so. “As long as Starbucks continues placing profits over partners, partners have a moral obligation to organize,” 13 former and current Starbucks employees said in a letter to Starbucks’ president and CEO. KSBW

‘A cloud never dies’: A California monastery mourns mindfulness advocate Thich Nhat Hanh. “Our teacher doesn’t die, he just manifests differently now,” said Brother Phap Dung, a dharma teacher at the monastery. “The cloud becomes rain, becomes grass, becomes tea. He’s not dead now, he’s just in a different form.” Fontana News Room

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Los Angeles: Cloudy 69 San Diego: Overcast 64 San Francisco: Cloudy 59 San Jose: Cloudy 62 Fresno: Cloudy 62 Sacramento: Cloudy 61


I recently asked readers for the music they listen to when they want some nostalgia in their lives. Here is a response from Lisa Petersen:

Absolutely my California music memory is the song “Light My Fire” by The Doors. Every time I hear it I am transported back to the first time I remember hearing it, at a public pool in Clovis. I would have been 6 years old in 1967 when the song came out. We lived in Oakland, but would visit my great-great-uncle (an emigre from Denmark) during the summers. My siblings and I would be so bored visiting uncle, so we would go to the local pool. I clearly recall hearing this amazing song, with its haunting lead singer’s voice and the electric piano riff. Such an epic memory.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments to essentialcalifornia@latimes.com.

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