Owners of a Grand Forks business are asking the Grand Forks Police Department to return property that was seized during the execution of what the owners say was a “fraudulent” search warrant Oct. 24.
The state argues, however, that the property is evidence in an active criminal investigation. In a response from the state, Grand Forks County Assistant State's Attorney Max LaCoursiere argues the warrant was justified because there was sufficient probable cause that illegal money transferring was being committed at the store.
Safari Market, a restaurant, coffee shop and store that specializes in Somali groceries, is requesting an evidentiary hearing before the Grand Forks District Court. A scheduling conference will be held Dec. 9.
Safari Market initially opened in Grand Forks in 2015 on South Washington Street and has operated out of its current location at 1305 Stanford Road since August 2017.
In the Oct. 24 search, Grand Forks police officers and Department of Homeland Security agents seized the market’s only computer, an internet router, miscellaneous ledgers and paperwork and other documents, “IOU slips from (a) safe and a Money Transmitter License, according to court documents.
When officers arrived on the premises, where customers were being served lunch, court documents said Safari Market owner Sainab Yussuf attempted to speak with Grand Forks Police Detective David Buzzo. Court documents said she told officers that Safari Market’s money transmitting business was fully legal, and that Safari Market is an authorized sub-agent of Minneapolis-based Olympic Financial Group Inc. Officers proceeded with the search anyway.
Under North Dakota law, it is legal for designated sub-agents of authorized money transmitters to also transfer money, as long as the money transmitter already has a presence in the state. Operation of a money transfer business without a proper license is a class C felony, which carries a maximum five-year sentence and $10,000 fine. No charges have been filed against Safari Market principals.
Safari Market provided the court with a copy of its contract with Olympic Financial Group, signed by both Yussuf and Olympic Financial Group’s North Dakota registered agent, Mohamud Hassan. The contract, dated Oct. 19, 2016, officially designated Yussuf as a sub-agent of Olympic Financial Group, which has been an authorized money transmitter in North Dakota since August 2012. According to the contract, Yussuf was to earn a 15% commission from the money transmissions.
The legality of the contract is in question. State Department of Financial Institutions Commissioner Lise Kruse told the Herald that sub-agent contracts can only be authorized by written consent of the commissioner, and her office never received any such request from Olympic Financial Group to designate Safari Market as a sub-agent.
In a response to Safari Market's complaint, LaCoursiere argued that whether or not Safari Market was operating its money transmitting business legally ultimately doesn’t matter, since the criminal investigation is ongoing and no charges have been filed. The only question, he said, is whether officers had enough reason to believe a crime was being committed to justify the search warrant.
According to an affidavit written by Buzzo, he received a tip from the Department of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) that Safari Market principals were operating an illegal money transmitting business out of the restaurant. Buzzo used this tip from HSI Special Agent Daniel Casetta, a former Grand Forks police officer, as a statement of probable cause to obtain the warrant.
Court documents indicate that Casetta learned of Safari Market’s money transmitting business when he sat in on a small claims court hearing where Grand Forks resident Gebretsadik Gebrehiwot claimed Safari Market did not transfer $100 to his family in Ethiopia in June. The judge later ruled in Gebrehiwot’s favor.
Casetta interviewed Gebrehiwot in the Grand Forks Police Station in September about Safari Market's money transferring business, which Gebrehiwot said he had used several times in the past. According to court documents, Casetta then called the North Dakota Department of Financial Institutions and was told by an official that “while it was possible that Safari was working for an authorized transmission company ... it was not properly registered by the transmitter,” according to court documents. Casetta passed this information on to Buzzo, who then requested the search warrant.
Safari Market’s complaint, written by the owners' attorney, David Thompson, differs from the state’s version of facts. In an affidavit, Thompson says that in his conversation with a Department of Financial Institutions official he was told that they informed Casetta that it would be “perfectly legal” for Safari Market to operate as a delegate of Olympic Financial Group. He argues that this omission from Buzzo’s request for the search warrant makes the warrant “fraudulent.” It's a claim the state calls “categorically untrue.”
Thompson adds that the search was conducted in the presence of “numerous frightened Somali-American customers,” many of whom “immediately hurried away from the premises and have not returned.”
“The consequences which have befallen ‘Safari Market’ and Mrs. Yussuf as a proximate result of this unlawful ‘search and seizure’ operation targeted at the lawful business of ‘Safari Market’ have been devastating,” the complaint reads. “In this regard, the Court should be aware that the gross business of ‘Safari Market’ has been down by approximately 90% since the search and seizure, which took place Oct. 24.”