‘Pot plantation’ verdict will determine fate of remote Washington, Penobscot parcels

Marijuana plants authorities seized in Washington County in 2009.
Maine Drug Enforcement Agency
Marijuana plants authorities seized in Washington County in 2009.
Posted Oct. 14, 2012, at 11:13 a.m.
Last modified Oct. 14, 2012, at 3:55 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — What becomes of four remote land parcels in Washington and Penobscot counties where state and federal law enforcement officers raided a massive “pot plantation” in September 2009 will eventually be decided in federal court.

Five people and Haynes Timberland Inc. of West Enfield were indicted last month on federal drug and other charges after Maine State Police in 2009 received a tip about a marijuana-growing operation in Township 37, located about 10 miles northwest of the Washington County community of Wesley. A subsequent raid on Sept. 22, 2009, netted 2,943 high-quality marijuana plants with an estimated street value of $9 million.

An indictment filed in U.S. District Court in Bangor specifies four parcels of property implicated by the U.S. attorney for Maine in the growing operation, two in Washington County and two in Penobscot County, according to documents on file in both counties. They include a 22,000-acre parcel in Washington County where marijuana plants were seized. That parcel, according to records on file at the Washington County Registry of Deeds, was purchased by Haynes Timberland in May of 2004 for $4.2 million. It includes 11 leases for camps on the Second Lake of Old Stream River.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Donald Clark declined last week to discuss the specifics of the case, which is scheduled for trial in November. Clark did, however, outline the procedures by which property associated with criminal activity can be forfeited and subsequently sold, with the proceeds reverting to the government.

“Federal law provides that real property that is acquired with the proceeds of felony violations of federal drug laws or used to facilitate violation of federal drug-trafficking laws is forfeitable,” said Clark, who oversees forfeiture actions out of the office of the U.S. Attorney in Portland.

As required by federal statutes, the indictment handed down in the pot plantation case specifies that, if convicted, the owners of the four parcels listed on notice that they will forfeit that those properties to the federal government.

“If this case goes to trial, then the government is going to have to convict the defendants of the drug trafficking crimes alleged with competent evidence and a burden of proof that is beyond a reasonable doubt,” Clark said. “If that occurs, in some circumstances, the defendant may want a jury to decide the next question, which is ‘Was the real property facing forfeiture connected to these crimes in a significant way?’ If the jury finds that it was, the court will issue a preliminary order of forfeiture.”

After a guilty verdict, Clark said, the government will advertise its intent to proceed with forfeiture, inviting claims by any mortgage holders, co-owners, municipalities that are owed property taxes and others with legal ties to the property being seized, including leaseholders.

“With mortgages, leases or easements, the fact that the government is acquiring the property by forfeit doesn’t vitiate valid encumbrances,” Clark said. “At sentencing, once all claims have been resolved, the court will vest title to the United States. The government doesn’t want to be a landlord and would endeavor to resolve all claims and sell the property to the highest bidder.”

In drug cases, Clark said, the U.S. Marshals Service will seize the property and post notices on the property. Historically, disposal of real estate seized has been handled through a local broker. More recently the marshals service contracts for property disposal, either at an appraised value or by auction.

Clark said federal law allows an “equitable share” of the proceeds from such sales to be distributed among the law enforcement agencies involved in cases that result in forfeitures. Court and police records show the mix of agencies involved in the September 2009 raid on the Washington County pot plantation included the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, the Internal Revenue Service, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Office of Homeland Security Investigations, with assistance from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Clark stressed that the allegations contained in the Sept. 14, 2012, indictment are just that.

“An indictment is merely an accusation,” he said. “These defendants are presumed innocent.”

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