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Stoddard County convenience stores awarded settlements for synthetic drug seizures
BLOOMFIELD, Mo. -- Three local convenience store owners will be issued a total of $70,000, with a fourth settlement amount yet undecided, a result of suits brought against Stoddard County Prosecuting Attorney Russ Oliver and Sheriff Carl Hefner following the July 14, 2011, confiscation of hundreds of packets that county authorities contended contained imitation controlled substances.
Rick Lane of RL's Package Plus in Essex will receive a sum of $15,000; Jim Page of J&R Quick Stop in Bloomfield will get $25,000; and Gary Jackson, owner of Jack's at Bernie will get $30,000, according to a letter from attorneys representing Stoddard County's insurance company, dated Aug. 13, to the Stoddard County Clerk's office. The letter directs payment to the three individual store owners. Settlement for a fourth operation included in the July 2011 seizures, Tootie's 225 Package Store in Dexter, has yet to be decided.
"It's important," explained Oliver Monday afternoon, "that the public realizes that no judges or attorneys were involved in this decision. This money will be distributed because insurance companies calculated the amount that it would cost to conduct four jury trials and then decided to pay out rather than go to trial because it is a cost-effective solution.
"I was opposed to paying anything to any of these stores. I told the insurance company that from day one. I was adamant that we pay nothing to these stores. I wanted a jury to decide on this. It was a frivolous suit, in my opinion."
When Stoddard County sheriff's deputies, along with Dexter Police, confiscated packets containing synthetic or "analogue" drugs from six local convenience stores in July 2011, it was with the compliance of shop owners, managers, and in one case, a store employee. Each was handed a letter at the time of the confiscation from Oliver informing them of the county's stance regarding the sale of "imitation controlled substances" -- the target of the confiscation.
Oliver's letter stated that "possessing, selling, purchasing or otherwise transferring these compounds is illegal under Missouri law," and that the prosecuting attorney's officer would "vigorously investigate and prosecute those who sell or possess these compounds."
Immediately following the visits to the convenience stores on July 14, 2011, Stoddard County Sheriff Carl Hefner said all personnel and owners were "extremely compliant during the seizure process." Each willingly turned over the packets which were found on the store shelves openly displayed and being sold as incense in many cases, he said. The packets carried names that included Ivory, Euphoria, Cloud Nine, and Bliss. Their contents were, Oliver contended, comprised of chemicals that mimic controlled substances -- illegal according to a Missouri statute criminalizing the possession and distribution, respectively, of imitation controlled substances.
Oliver explained at the time that an imitation controlled substance, unlike a controlled substance analogue, does not need to be chemically similar to a controlled substance. It merely needs to cause a similar effect as a controlled substance, or by its appearance or use leads a reasonable person to believe that it is a controlled substance.
Although store owners were said to be compliant at the time of the confiscation, four of the business owners whose stores were included in the seizures filed suit in federal court against both Oliver and Hefner in the weeks following the seizures.
The lawsuits contended that the sweep was "intimidating and menacing to owners, employees, and customers." Jim Page, of J&R Quick Stop in Bloomfield, contended in his suit that the herbal incense taken at his store was legal.
The suits went on to state the confiscation caused "reputational harm to the businesses, owners, and their businesses by implying that they were engaged in illegal activities," and that the four combined lost a combined $1,456 in inventory when their shelves were emptied of the packets on July 14, 2011. Also cited in the suits was a projected $64,408 in potential lost income and earnings.
At the time of the lawsuit's filing, Thad Mulholland, the plaintiffs' attorney, also stated that he questioned the statutes used to justify the seizure of the packets, and he took issue with Oliver referring to the substances as "bath salts."
Oliver and Hefner both confirmed following the seizures that the packets seized on July 14, 2011 were not bath salts, but were synthetic marijuana.
"I wouldn't change a single thing," Oliver reiterated Monday, discussing the operation of July 2011. "I'm proud that we were able to stop an epidemic that was operating in our own backyard. I am proud that lives have been saved because of our actions, and I'm proud of the impact that the Stoddard County Sheriff's office and this office have had on a growing industry."
Oliver cited the subsequent shut down of the Columbia, Mo., based company, Bocomo Bay, and its founder, Kevin Bay, following the 2011 seizures in Stoddard County. Bay was the chief manufacturer of the imitation controlled substances seized in the county.
"I'm proud that we sent the message that we did," Oliver said. "I am unapologetic for anything that happened as a result of these seizures."
Oliver remains confident that if the cases had proceeded to a courtroom trial, he and Hefner would have come out victorious. He provided the county's attorneys with case law that he said was directly "on point."
"The exact case scenario had been upheld time and time again," he said. "I would have much preferred we went to trial."
Paule, Camazine & Blumenthal, P.C., attorneys for the county's insurance company out of Clayton, Mo., informed the county clerk's office on Aug. 13 of the settlements. The settlements were decided upon outside of a court setting between attorneys from the Clayton firm and the plaintiffs' attorney. Mulholland, when contacted on Monday, said that although the three cases were settled, final paperwork was yet to be completed, and so he declined to comment on the case. He did confirm that the suit involving Tootie's 225 Package in Dexter is in active litigation.
The scheduled payments will be provided by the county's insurance company, although deductible payments will be the responsibility of the county. It was unclear initially whether a separate deductible of $2,500 would have to paid toward each settlement, or if one initial deductible from the county would be sufficient.