Judge rules police must return 39 marijuana plants to couple

November 26, 2007

John Ensslin, Rocky Mountain News (CO)

A Fort Collins couple and their lawyer plan to visit the Larimer County sheriff's office Wednesday in hopes of recovering 39 marijuana plants seized by narcotics officers during a raid at their home in August 2006.

A Larimer County District Court Judge ruled Monday that authorities must return the plants and growing equipment taken from James and Lisa Masters. Their lawyer described them as medical marijuana providers for themselves and about 8 to 10 other people.

Brian Vincente, lawyer for the couple, hopes authorities have taken care of the plants as provided by the state's medical marijuana law, which was approved by voters in 2000.

"If they've allowed these plants to die, they've broken the law," said Vincente, executive director of Sensible Colorado, a non-profit advocacy group of medical marijuana patients.

He described the ruling as the largest return of medical marijuana to a grower since the law went into effect.

If the plants were destroyed, Vincente said his clients will seek compensation for the plants, which he estimated to be about $100,000.

Representatives of the Sheriff Department and the Larimer County Drug Task Force could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

However, Larimer County District Attorney Larry Abrahamson said his office is weighing whether to appeal the decision issued verbally in court by Judge James Hiatt.

"We're getting a transcript of the ruling itself," Abrahamson said. "Then we'll sit down and evaluate it."

If prosecutors appeal, he said they would likely seek an order staying the judge's order to return the plants and equipment to the Masters.

According to Vincente, the plants first came to authorities' attention after police accompanied a social service worker on a visit to the couple's home.

Masters allowed the officer into his home on the assumption that he was protected by the medical marijuana statute, his lawyer said.

Later, police raided the home using the earlier visit as the basis for a search warrant.

In June 2006, Hiatt tossed out the charges against the Masters after ruling that the search warrant was illegal.

Vincente argued that the officer who drafted the warrant, "wrote up a search warrant on what he had already searched."

Monday's hearing concerned the issue of whether the marijuana and equipment seized was contraband or property that needed to be returned to the Masters.

Hiatt heard about four hours of testimony from police as well as people who said they rely upon the couple not only for medical marijuana, but for rides to hospitals and doctors and other care.

While no one had designated the Masters as caretakers at the time of the raid, Vincente argued that the couple's actions met the definition of the term as spelled out in the law.

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