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Ravalli County seizes land in drug war

Seizing drug land

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The Ravalli County Sheriff’s Office for the first time has taken title to two valuable properties forfeited by Bitterrooters convicted of drug crimes.

Last January, Marilyn Johnson was sentenced on seven drug charges, including growing marijuana on her land. She forfeited her 10-plus acres and home on the West Fork Road as part of a plea bargain agreement with the prosecutor.

And last year, title to a cabin and several acres of land northwest of Darby—officers say they don’t remember how many acres, but believe it to be between six and 10—was turned over to the sheriff by Earl Butler, who also was convicted of growing marijuana at his home, and who also agreed to the forfeiture as part of a plea bargain.

Though the sheriff’s office has in the past seized vehicles used to transport illegal drugs, the two properties were the first real estate turned over to the department.

Montana law allows forfeitures of real property where illegal drugs have been manufactured or possessed, and when the punishment for the crime calls for more than five years in prison. But the department could have seized the lands in a civil trial if Johnson and Butler had not forfeited their homes in the criminal proceedings.

Sheriff Perry Johnson says seizing the property in civil proceedings would have probably been easier than negotiating the plea bargain that resulted in the forfeitures because the criminal cases had to be airtight, with no room for the defendants to maneuver legally. A civil trial, on the other hand, would have only required the county to show a “preponderance of evidence,” an easier standard to meet than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard required in criminal trials. “Obviously, these offenders believe the same thing because they signed off on the plea agreement,” Sheriff Johnson says.

Detective Jim Chinn, who investigated both cases, says he didn’t have a problem with the forfeitures since neither Butler nor Marilyn Johnson paid taxes on the money they made selling marijuana, calling them “people who are able to buy land, buy vehicles, and yet they don’t contribute to the demands of society by paying taxes like everyone else does. Everyone else carries the burden.”

The land forfeitures, the first in Ravalli County’s history, don’t represent a shift in policy, according to Sheriff Johnson. Rather, he says, they reflect the well-honed investigative skills of long-time detective Chinn, who was appointed the county’s sole drug detective two-and-a-half years ago.

The lands will eventually be sold at auction and the proceeds deposited with the county treasurer in a special drug fund. The money may only be spent to enforce drug laws.

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