Missoula County cashes in

The goods at stake in a local forfeiture case—including a 1999 Cadillac Escalade, $44,360 in cash and an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle—have been divvied up. In early June, District Judge Dusty Deschamps ruled that Erik Branam, whom Missoula County alleged is a drug dealer despite a conspicuous lack of criminal charges against him, gets to keep his car, and Missoula County gets to keep the cash and gun.

After being pulled over in spring 2005, Branam, 21, and other occupants fled the Escalade, which Missoula sheriff’s deputies later seized after finding large sums of cash and the weapon inside. Although no criminal drug charges were ever filed against Branam, the county filed for civil forfeiture of Branam’s goods, alleging he’s a drug dealer. Unlike a criminal case, in which the county would carry the burden of proving Branam’s guilt before seizing his possessions, Montana’s civil forfeiture law presumes the county is justified, and Branam must convince the judge his belongings aren’t linked to drugs, or else the county gets to keep them.

At recent hearings, Branam argued his property came courtesy of a generous father and budding glass-blowing business, and attorney Martin Judnich questioned the credibility of informants Missoula County called to the stand who linked Branam to drug dealing. And in his ruling, Deshamps found that local prosecutors failed to draw any link between the Escalade and Branam’s alleged drug activities. However, Deshamps was convinced by testimony from Great Falls drug dealer and informant James Fenner, who said he’d purchased thousands of dollars of marijuana from Branam, and ruled the $44,360 was criminal proceeds. He also gave the gun to Missoula County, since Branam testified it wasn’t his.

Judnich says Branam won’t appeal the decision because he can’t afford to.

“This guy’s still never been charged with any drug-related crimes and now he’s lost $44,000 even though he showed it came from business and gifts,” Judnich says. “Now the state gets to do with that money as they wish…it just doesn’t make a heck of a lot of sense.”

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