Amicus lector
That’s not dope money, officer. It’s hot rod money

I’ve written in the past about asset forfeiture in South Dakota, the process by which the state fills the drug control fund.

Here’s a primer: If you’re caught with drugs, the law says any assets suspected of being earned through the sale of drugs can be seized through a civil action before your criminal case is resolved.

Generally, this means cash. Often, it also means a vehicle.

If you have a trailer full of marijuana and truck full of cash, the law has the right to take it all. Once it’s gone, the state files a civil case against your assets and names you in the complaint. You then have 30 days to respond and say why the state shouldn’t get your stuff.

What usually happens is this: The person loses their cash, the complaint is filed and no response follows. The state gets the money then, free and clear. Anything that isn’t cash is sold at biannual auctions. The money is then used to equip police departments across the state.

Sometimes the person fights back. That’s when things get interesting.

Last week, I saw an answer to one of these asset forfeiture claims from Madison, Wisc. man named Dustin Sobacki.

Sobacki lost his cash on Oct. 22. The complaint says the $2,900 he was caught with was derived from the unlawful sale of a controlled substance or marijuana.

Not so, Mr. Sobacki says. He had the cash to buy a car. In his answer, he included emails between himself and the Portland, Ore. seller of a 1973 El Camino. There’s even a post-seizure apology email that says “they took my money” in South Dakota and a list of bank account transactions.

Furthermore, he said, the state “lost or misplaced” some of his cash. He wants it all back, thank you very much.

Now the state will need to put in work to prove Sobacki wrong.

Here’s a copy of his answer.

Asset Forfeiture

Sometimes this can get pretty interesting. In 2010, I wrote about Justin Young, a Sioux Falls man who apparently had a motorcycle and methamphetamine business running side by side. Part of the meth business involved affixing phony bar codes to security systems at Menards, which lowered the price considerably at checkout.

A partner would pick up the mismarked systems and buy them, after which Young would re-sell them for a profit to drug dealers.

 I followed his cases through state and federal court (Mr. Young is in federal prison for methamphetamine right now) for several months before putting a story together. In the end, Young’s family was able to keep some of the cash initially seized in the forfeiture proceedings. It was used to pay restitution and court costs.

Here’s the story on the Young situation. It ran on Oct. 8, 2010

Felon admits guilt in high-tech retail scam

A convicted felon with a history of forgery, burglary and theft admitted Thursday to using counterfeit UPC labels to shave $1,600 off the price of merchandise at Menard’s in Sioux Falls.

The admission of guilt in the Minnehaha County grand theft case signals the end of a seven-month courtroom saga for the family of 31-year-old Justin David Young. They said he was on his way to a normal life when a medical condition forced him from his job last year, and he returned to the criminal lifestyle only to support his family and help him finance the beginnings of a legitimate business.

Young avoided felony convictions for six years, but instead of watching Pedal 2 the Metal Motorsports turn into a profitable enterprise, he and his fiancée, Heidi Sowell, saw their vehicle, trailer, inventory and start-up cash seized by the state as part of a narcotics investigation.Young was sentenced last week to 13 years in prison for methamphetamine distribution.

The couple, who have two children together, were barred from seeing one another as part of Sowell’s August sentence.

Prosecutors say the couple was trading methamphetamine for motorcycles, but Sowell and Young say the situation was more complex.

Police pulled the pair over in Sioux Falls on March 8 and found a small marijuana pipe in Sowell’s pocket. They then found a small amount of meth in their hotel room and $20,000 in cash, meth, a handful of prescription pills, drug paraphernalia and a stash of counterfeit UPC labels from five stores inside a trailer at their home in Sioux Falls. The trailer was registered to their business.

At her August sentencing, Sowell told Circuit Judge Larry Long that Pedal 2 the Metal was not a front for drug dealing.

"Our business was not a cover," she said. "It was a legitimate business. We were trying to move away from the lifestyle we were living."

That lifestyle had gotten out of hand, she said. She was pregnant at the time of her arrest, and she admitted to using methamphetamine during her pregnancy.

She spent several weeks in detox and another four months in a halfway house, where she had her child. Her lawyer, John Wilka, told Long that she’d completed inpatient treatment and taken charge of her recovery.

Long praised her efforts to stay clean, but said it wasn’t enough. In addition to a 60-day jail sentence, Long ordered that she have no contact with her fiancé for three years after her release.

"You’ll not survive if you maintain a relationship with Justin Young," Long said. "I’m perfectly confident of that."

A month later, Sowell’s brother, 25-year-old Dwain Riffle, pleaded guilty to grand theft for his part in the UPC scheme. Young took pictures of UPC codes with his phone, court documents state, and used the photos to design the labels. He would affix the phonies to the products, and Riffle would return later and purchase them.

Young had an $18-an-hour job operating heavy equipment at a cement plant last year when he began to have seizures, defense lawyer Sonny Walter said at Young’s sentencing last week. He was no longer able to work, Walter said, but still had child support and restitution payments to make. His mother, Wendy Young, had been diagnosed with cancer before the job loss.

"He saw an opportunity to sell some drugs to help out his family," Walter said. "It wasn’t the right decision, but that’s what happened."

After reviewing his pre-sentence file, U.S. District Judge Karen Schreier believed that Young had attempted to live within the bounds of the law after moving to Sioux Falls from western South Dakota.

He had convictions for forgery, grand theft, petty theft, drug possession, burglary and escape from custody in Pennington and Lawrence counties. His last theft conviction was in 2004 in Lawrence County.

He’d obtained a tax license for Pedal 2 the Metal and sold a handful of rebuilt snowmobiles and motorcycles on the Internet, and the business was on track to become profitable.

"For being a 31-year-old, you have a pretty high criminal profile," Schreier said. "It did look to me, though, that you had been trying to turn your life around. Unfortunately, you got back involved with the same things you’d been doing before."

After sentencing him to 151 months in federal prison - the bottom end of the sentencing guidelines for his case - she told him to aspire to the lifestyle he’d turned away from.

"I’m hopeful you can look back at the time when you set up your business and had a stable family life and remember that you can choose that again."

Reach reporter John Hult at 331-2301.


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