A case in which Missoula County is seeking forfeiture of a Cadillac Escalade, $44,360 and an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle from a man the county alleges is a drug dealer—despite a conspicuous lack of criminal charges against him—moved forward Tuesday, Feb. 6, at a hearing before District Judge Dusty Deschamps.
Erik Branam, 21, testified that the property seized by Missoula sheriff’s deputies in spring 2005, when Branam and other occupants fled the Escalade after being pulled over, aren’t drug proceeds, but rather the fruits of a generous father and honest labor. The cash was in his car, he said, because he didn’t want it in his East Missoula home the night he hosted a party there, and he didn’t have a bank account at the time. He accounts for his suspicious flight from sheriff’s deputies by sheepishly saying he was “confused, young and scared.” Father Kirk Branam testified that he gave his son money from a family inheritance to buy the Escalade, and that he frequently supported him with other sums.
While Deputy County Attorney Andrew Paul worked to poke holes in the Branams’ testimony, he has yet to present information supporting the county’s allegation that the younger Branam is a drug dealer; Deschamps postponed the hearing’s second part until Feb. 23. Paul may call two confidential informants as witnesses against Branam, though he said after the hearing he’s not sure he’ll need them, an assertion defense attorney Martin Judnich replied would “shock” him.
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 that his car, money and gun aren’t linked to drugs, or else the county gets to keep them.
After the hearing, Paul called it “strange” that neither Branam provided explanations for the property sooner if Erik did nothing wrong, but Judnich says the county never asked.
As Erik said on the witness stand, responding to Paul’s query about why he didn’t offer his account sooner: “Why should I have to prove my innocence if I’ve done nothing wrong?”