High Desert Relief v. United States, No. 17-2083 (10th Cir. 2019)Annotate this Case
This case arose out of the efforts the IRS made to investigate the tax liability of High Desert Relief, Inc. (“HDR”), a medical marijuana dispensary in New Mexico. The IRS began an investigation into whether HDR had improperly paid its taxes, and specifically whether it had improperly taken deductions for business expenses that arose from a “trade or business” that “consists of trafficking in controlled substances.” Because HDR refused to furnish the IRS with requested audit information, the IRS issued four summonses to third parties in an attempt to obtain the relevant materials by other means. HDR filed separate petitions to quash these third-party summonses in federal district court in the District of New Mexico, and the government filed corresponding counterclaims seeking enforcement of the summonses. HDR argued that the summonses were issued for an improper purpose—specifically, that the IRS, in seeking to determine the applicability of 26 U.S.C. 280E, was mounting a de facto criminal investigation pursuant to the Controlled Substances Act. HDR also asserted that enforcement of section 280E was improper because an "official [federal] policy of non-enforcement” of the CSA against medical marijuana dispensaries had rendered that statute’s proscription on marijuana trafficking a “dead letter” incapable of engendering adverse tax consequences for HDR. The petitions were resolved in proceedings before two different district court judges; both judges ruled in favor of the United States on the petitions to quash, and separately granted the United States’ motions to enforce the summonses. HDR challenged these rulings on appeal. The Tenth Circuit determined HDR was unable to overcome the government’s demonstration of good faith under United States v. Powell, 379 U.S. 48 (1964), and its alternative “dead letter” argument was without merit.