Jay McCloskey served as U.S. Attorney in Maine for eight years. In the mid 1980s, before he took over the top job, McCloskey worked his share of drug cases as a lower-level federal prosecutor. "There were large-scale importations along the coast of Maine involving anywhere from ten thousand to sixty thousand pounds of marijuana. Vessels the size of 300 feet or more," McCloskey said.
He also said that during this period the government began using the federal forfeiture law heavily in its drug investigations. The idea was to take control of anything that was aiding and abetting all the drug trafficking.
"The government would go after the boats, the vessels, the property, foreign bank accounts," he said.
The government also began seizing land where marijuana was grown or stored. In 2011, the U.S. Justice Department seized nearly $66 million of so-called "real property." Drug-related land forfeiture in Maine has become a relatively common part of federal investigations, a move that doesn't turn too many heads, that is, until this month, when U.S. attorneys handed down an indictment that seeks to take control of an entire township. McCloskey said he's never seen anything like it.
"I think it can be said pretty clearly that, in terms of the number of acres, this is the largest case on which the federal government has tried to forfeit in Maine," he said.
The more than 22,000 acres in question comprise most of Township 37 in a remote part of Washington County, near Horse Lake. In September of 2009, someone posted a tip on a state police website about pot, a lot of it, somewhere on the property. Pilots with the warden service did a flyover. They saw people torching buildings on the ground below. When state and federal law enforcement officers finally reached the site, they found a plantation, nearly 3,000 marijuana plants and a handful of burned out bunkhouses. The indictment charges five men, and the company that owns the land, with an array of drug crimes.
"Why would the company buy the entire township?" McCLoskey asked. "You could probably grow 3,000 marijuana plants on one acre."
David Smith, who's a lawyer in private practice, ran the first asset forfeiture office in the criminal division of the U.S. Justice Department in the early 1980s. Smith said federal prosecutors may be trying to build a so-called facilitation case.
"On the theory that the other land, or at least the nearby land, served a masking function, that is it kept people away from the grow," said Smith. "Just physically hiding, you know you couldn't see the marijuana because the surrounding land couldn't be entered. Any property that substantially facilitates a crime can be forfeited."
In criminal cases like this one, prosecutors ultimately need to secure a conviction to forfeit any land. Forfeited property is handed over to the U.S. Marshal's Service, which manages and sells it. Proceeds are shared with local and state law enforcement agencies.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was originally scheduled to be broadcast on Thursday, September 27, 2012 but technical difficulties moved the air date to Friday, September 28, 2012]