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Fate of Entire Maine Township at Stake in Marijuana Case
01/28/2014   Reported By: Jay Field

When a jury returned guilty verdicts late last week in the largest marijuana case in state history, it wasn't just three men they convicted. Jurors also ruled that several tracts of land, belonging to one of the defendants, were used to carry out the drug conspiracy. That means the judge in the case can now order that those properties be forfeited to the federal government. As Jay Field reports, the fate of an entire township in Washington County's Unorganized Territories hangs in the balance.

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The government tried four defendants in this case: three men - Rodney Russell, Kendall Chase and Malcolm French - and a company owned by French, Haynes Timberland, Incorporated.

As the case moves to the sentencing phase, though, much of the intrigue has now shifted away from the fates of the defendants to those of a group of unofficial, non-human co-conspirators, including a hunting camp, a warehouse and a
22,000-acre swath of dense, rugged, boggy land between Route 9 and the Stud Mill Rd.

"It is the court that will decide, by its entry of a preliminary order of forfeiture, what properties may be forfeited," says Assistant U.S. Attorney Donald Clar,

But this, says Clark, is where things can start to get complicated. Clark oversees asset forfeiture in Maine for the U.S. Justice Department. During the forfeiture process, the federal judge handling the case may very well decide that Township 37 - the 22,000-acre parcel where nearly 3,000 pot plants were grown - should be handed over to the the government.

But Clark says that doesn't necessarily mean that all the land will actually be handed over. There are cases in which - prior to the entry of a final order of forfeiture - parties negotiate a disposition of assets," he says. In other words, they reach a settlement.

There's also the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to consider. In this case, the goverment argued the defendants used 10,000 of the 22,000 acres in Township 37 for the actual marijuana grow. The Eighth Amendment contains an excessive fines clause.

A defense lawyer in the case would not talk on the record about legal strategy. But it's possible the defense will argue that it would be unfair for the judge to allow the goverment to seize the entire township, when less than half of the land was actually used to grow the weed.

"When you start talking the forfeiture of an entire township - that's a vast amount of land," says Chris Gardner, chair of the board of commissioners in Washington County, where officials are following this case closely.

After the initial forfeiture ruling, the court will hold a hearing for all parties that have a financial interest in Township 37. That group is likely to include any mortgage holders, as well as Washington County, which collects property tax revenue from the Unorganized Territories. "We certainly probably are not talking about vast amounts of money," Gardner says. "But I think it's considerable."

Gardner says he's confident the county's interests will be protected throughout the process. If federal prosecutors and defense lawyers fail to reach a forfeiture settlement, the judge will then issue a final ruling.

Clark says it would then be up to the Internal Revenue Service to decide how it wants to liquidate any seized property and assets. "Sometimes properties are sold by putting them in the hands of a real estate agent and sometimes they are sold by auction," he says.

Either the IRS, or the auction house it's working with, puts an ad in the paper advertising the sale. The ad notes that the property was seized due to violations of federal law.


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