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Man Never Charged In Crime Owes Money

Posted June 20, 2000 12:34:53 by Pi, Editor
Jackson Charles Thomas Jr. doesn't own any land near his trailer, where police seized more than 500 marijuana plants last year. Thomas says he didn't plant them. And, after being questioned by police, he was never charged with a crime.

A local grand jury declined to indict Thomas.

But the state nonetheless is demanding that he pay $1,161,859.94 in taxes, penalties and interest on the marijuana under a 1994 law that allows such an assessment based only on a police officer's report.

The Marijuana and Controlled Substances Tax law says that anyone who possesses enough illegal drugs to be considered a drug dealer must pay taxes on them. Lawmakers hoped the measure would recover some of the profits of the illegal drug trade and get tough on drug dealers.

Anyone with more than five marijuana plants is considered a dealer and must pay $1,000 per plant. A person with at least 42.5 grams of marijuana must pay $3.50 per gram.

In cases where a dealer is also convicted of a crime, the tax law serves to levy a substantial additional fine.

But even when the standard of proof in criminal court cannot be met as in Thomas' case the law can punish those identified by police as drug dealers.

"I don't know what I'm going to do," said Thomas, 26, of Breathitt County. "I could never pay this off."

Relying on a police report that listed him as the "dealer" responsible for the plants, the Kentucky Revenue Cabinet has ordered Thomas to pay the tax on them.

And just to appeal the tax bill, Thomas must first post bond in the amount of tax the state says he owes, which Thomas said is impossible.

"It's about drove me crazy," he said as he stood in front of his mobile home and surveyed the hollow where police seized the marijuana plants. "I don't own any of this. I don't control any of it."

Law Had Its Doubters

Despite the popularity of anti-drug bills with members of the General Assembly, the 1994 bill (which passed the House by a 80-11 vote and the Senate by 26-8) had its opponents including respected attorneys in both political parties.

Former Sen. Walter Baker, a Glasgow Republican who later briefly served on the Kentucky Supreme Court, thought the law was flawed and voted against it.

"If you violate the law you ought to be prosecuted," Baker said. "But with this law it seems the state is loading up in what is an unfair and, in my judgment, an unconstitutional way."

In 1995 two Lexington men challenged the tax law, saying it violated their rights against double jeopardy. The men, who were indicted for cocaine possession and later pleaded guilty, were assessed taxes of $10,000 for the drugs.

After the case won in Fayette Circuit Court and in the Kentucky Court of Appeals, the state Supreme Court in November 1998 unanimously ruled against the double-jeopardy claim, saying the tax does not constitute double jeopardy, partly because "assessment and payment of the drug tax is not contingent on the commission of a crime. The tax is levied regardless of whether the taxpayer has been arrested."

Bill Keeps Growing

Thomas' troubles began last September when the Kentucky State Police's Marijuana Strike Force spotted the plants from a helicopter along Cloverfork Road in western Breathitt County. State police files indicate investigators found marijuana plants in two large patches and in three smaller ones.

Thomas said that as investigators were cutting down the plants, police stopped him for questioning as he was driving on the gravel road from his mobile home.

According to police records, Thomas said he told police that he had nothing to do with the plants, an assertion he has repeated.

At the time the plants were found, Thomas said, he was living mostly at college in Morehead.

State police records show the investigation was closed Jan. 26. But under the 1994 law, the trooper who conducted the investigation sent a "Notice of Seizure and Tax Lien" to the Revenue Cabinet, listing Thomas as the "dealer" of the seized marijuana plants.

The law sets a tax of $1,000 per plant plus a $1,000 penalty per plant. The tax and penalty, plus $4,078.38 in interest put Thomas' original bill at $1,038,078.38. Interest and fees have increased the bill which is still growing to $1,161,859.94.

`Life On Hold'

Thomas' lawyer, Robert Cornett, is exploring options to fight Thomas' tax bill.

"It's very distressing," Cornett said. "The state apparently lacks evidence needed to bring charges, but on the word of one police officer it can levy this tax that puts Charles' life on hold."

The Revenue Cabinet filed a lien against Thomas in the Breathitt County Clerk's office and wrote letters to the two banks in the county to seize any of his accounts. Thomas had no accounts at either bank.

He works for his mother's consignment clothing store and for other family owned businesses and is paid in cash.

He's reluctant to apply for another job because the Revenue Cabinet has warned it might attach his wages.

Charles Werder, a supervisor in the cabinet's Division of Collections, said bills under the tax law are sent when a law-enforcement officer submits a report identifying a "dealer" of seized drugs.

"The only information we get is from the arresting officer. That's what we use," he said.

"It's not a very taxpayer-friendly-type law," Werder said. "It pretty much tells you that it's up to the person to prove that they're innocent, which kind of contradicts everything we've been brought up to believe."

Source: Associated Press, Lexington Herald-Leader
Published: 2000-06-05

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