The Little Caesars on Byhalia Road in Collierville must have seemed like a dream for hourly employee -- and alleged marijuana dealer -- Steven Barton. But since the Collierville Police Department (CPD) busted Barton in June, the situation has become a nightmare for Little Caesars franchise owner Martin Mathews.
After Barton's arrest on June 15th, the restaurant's operating account was placed on hold by Collierville judge William Hall. That's because, on at least one occasion, Barton ran a debit card for someone's marijuana purchase, taking $12 in cash from the Little Caesars cash register. Since funds from Barton's pot sales were mixed in with the Little Caesars account, almost $240,000 was seized as drug money.
"[Owner] Mathews began to immediately suffer damages because he couldn't take credit cards anymore at any of his Little Caesars locations," said Lee Gerald, attorney for Mathews. "He had to move assets around."
In an affidavit to allow the seizure, CPD detective John Forrester listed Barton as having "an ownership, co-ownership, or security interest" in the restaurant. Because Barton was an hourly employee, Gerald said the funds were seized illegally.
"They either didn't investigate at all or they just made stuff up," said Gerald. "Otherwise, they wouldn't have been able to seize the account, at least not in my legal opinion."
Not so, said Joe Bartlett of the Department of Safety, the state agency charged with handling the seizure process.
"[How Barton is listed] wouldn't change anything," said Bartlett. "The warrant and affidavit have to be done quickly. They don't have a lot of time to spend investigating the case." Once funds are seized as drug money, the case is forwarded to the state Department of Safety.
From there, the owner of the funds can either settle out of court or wait about 90 days for a trial. The account remains on hold during that time.
According to Gerald, Tommy McCaskill, the captain of criminal investigation with the CPD, asked Mathews to pay a $15,000 settlement.
"I said, 'Do what?'" said Gerald. "I told him I don't react well to shakedowns or extortion." Gerald negotiated a deal with the state Department of Safety that would return $229,000 to Mathews. The state will keep the remainder of the seized money, but Mathews can still go to court to try to recoup those funds.
Though handled by the Department of Safety, all forfeited money goes to the agency that originally seized it. In this case, that is the CPD.
In Collierville, forfeited money goes toward the department's drug fund, which pays for everything from narcotics officers' uniforms to dog food for the narcotics K-9 unit.
Most cases in the state, however, involve funds from individuals, not businesses. Bartlett admitted this was "an unusual case."
The state seizes about $20 million a year. It is disbursed to about 600 law enforcement agencies across the state.