County justifies warrantless raids because cannabis plants are an ‘immediate danger’

The Scales of Justice
The Scales of Justice
The Scales of Justice

LAKE COUNTY, CA — Hundreds of individuals in the county have come forward in a joint lawsuit alleging that police conducted warrantless searches and seizures of their property because of the suspicion of unregulated plant growth.

The plaintiffs, whose numbers exceed 200 in the lawsuit, claim that police have systematically raided people who were legally qualified to grow cannabis for medical purposes, destroyed their property, and left them suffering without their medicine. A number of senior-citizen cannabis patients were among the plaintiffs.

The complaint named the following defendants: the county of Lake, Sheriff Francisco Rivero, Undersheriff Chris Macedo, Lt. Loren Freeman of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Community Development Director Rick Coel, and 50 unnamed individuals.

The raids have amassed only since June 2014, when Lake County passed Ordinance No. 2997 (also called “Measure N”) which laid out legal requirements for growing marijuana on private property. The ordinance allows qualified individuals to grow up to six plants, if they own an acre or more of property.

The hundreds of raids that followed were allegedly performed in order to enforce the arbitrary requirements laid out in Measure N. However, county law enforcement apparently made little effort to abide by the Bill of Rights while robotically checking for compliance with the ordinance.

In some cases, cops cut off locks and broke into gated properties, all without acquiring a warrant.

During oral arguments in court, Lake County officials remained adamant that the warrantless searches were justified and legal, and that warrants were unnecessary because of exigent circumstances.

“Lake County law enforcement broke through several gates, entering the property of qualified patients without consent, and seizing medical marijuana without a warrant,” attorney Joe Elford stated.

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FOLLOW-UP:

United States District Court Judge Thelton Henderson sided with the plaintiffs and gently reminded the police that they have to abide by the constitution in performance of their duties.

Judge Henderson ordered that, “Defendant County of Lake, its officers, agents, and employees, and any other persons acting in active concert or participation therewith, are enjoined from enforcing Ordinance No. 2997 [Measure N] through warrantless searches or summary abatement actions without consent, unless doing so is necessary to prevent immediate physical harm to persons or property, the destruction of evidence for a criminal case, or the escape of a criminal suspect.”

The Court also held that, “denying the preliminary injunction would leave numerous medical marijuana patients in Lake County vulnerable to future warrantless seizures of their medicine, which could lead to significant pain and suffering,” and that in this circumstance, “the protection of constitutional rights and the guarantee of access to state-recognized medicine tilts the scales in favor of Plaintiffs.”

Judge Henderson rejected Lake County’s argument that any improperly-grown plants posed an “immediate threat” to public health and safety in some cases, or that exigent circumstances existed such that warrants could be ignored.

The Court was also “utterly unpersuaded by Defendants’ claim at oral argument that Lake County should not be required to get a warrant for these abatement actions because it has not fully developed the institutional process required to do so.”

The ruling essentially affirmed that Lake County had been infringing upon citizens’ rights en masse and ordered the county to cease and desist. Attorney Joe Elford characterized it as a “tremendous victory for the medical marijuana patients of Lake County, who no longer have to live in fear that police officers will raid their property without a warrant and unlawfully seize their medicine.”

Despite the legally-recognized violations of hundreds of individuals’ constitutional rights, there is no indication that the lawless behavior on behalf of the police will result in any officer or official facing discipline, termination, or criminal charges.

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