Litany of alleged abuses masked by fear of reprisal and gray pot law

Adrian Baumann, Willits News

A lawyer for a group of local growers has filed a request for public records with the Mendocino County Sheriff's Office for documents connected to allegations of illegal raids, and other police misbehavior, seeking a huge swath of documents related to raids by County of Mendocino Marijuana Eradication Taskforce and the Mendocino Major Crimes Task Force, over the last several years; the document was also sent to the state Department of Justice. Allegations of several raids alleged to be abusive or illegal, have also been communicated in detail to The Willits News.

PRA requests are similar to federal Freedom of Information Act requests, but on a local level. The PRA request was issued by Joe Elford of a medical marijuana lawyer in San Francisco, and formerly chief counsel for Americans for Safe Access, on behalf of a group of growers from across the county who are seeking to understand the nature of several recent raids that have left many throughout the county scratching their heads.

Finding that they could not get to the bottom of these raids, and believing the tactics practiced during the raids were abusive, and in some cases unconstitutional, a group of growers eventually contacted Elford to aid them in obtaining documentation of the raids from the sheriff's office.

The PRA request states that Mendocino County residents have complained that, " the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department ("Department"), through its County of Mendocino Marijuana Eradication Team ("COMMET"), together with the Mendocino Major Crimes Task Force ("MMCTF"), have conducted illegal raids on medical marijuana patients "

The request includes an exhaustive list of documents from "internal and external correspondence (including email), memoranda," to "logs and other written records or records by any other means," in writing, disks, hard drives etc.

The action comes after a summer of what several sources allege were erratic often abusive raids. This summer there has been much confusion about who was responsible for a number of marijuana raids, with men without obvious identification cutting down small gardens, while allegedly often passing over adjacent larger gardens. Many resulted in no arrests, leading to the rumors that private vigilante groups were raiding pot gardens within the county. Rumors Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman did his best to dispel at a public meeting in Laytonville and on a subsequent KMUD interview last month. As far as can be determined by TWN, the raids thought to be vigilante raids were actually carried out by either the Mendocino Major Crimes Task Force, the sheriff's office, or possibly another government agency and not private companies. Yet, there is widespread belief the standards of conduct laid out in public by Allman are not being followed by whatever government law enforcement agency is conducting the raids.

The people behind hiring Mr. Elford, along with over 15 sources spoken to by TWN over the course of a couple months, believe the raids are resulting in a pattern of abuse and a violation of civil rights, and allege specific cases of police misconduct ranging from the police telling a small boy that they were going to shoot his father, to repeatedly pepper spraying and threatening to shoot peaceful dogs, refusal to present warrants, destruction of personal property under the guise of searching for marijuana, the destruction of drinking water tanks and springs, theft of money and property, and of course of cutting down county compliant gardens. Because of fear of reprisal from the police all people who were interviewed wished to remain anonymous. The incidents relayed to The Willits News are not isolated, and there are far more accounts by people who wished not to go on the record, even anonymously, for fear of reprisals from the police.

The incidents described fall into four rough categories: Contradictions with Allman's public statements about what constitutes compliance, violations of fourth amendment rights, abusive police tactics, and possible corruption including threatening to use police force for private purposes and theft.

Behind all of this is a sense of a population that no longer trusts law enforcement to look out for their best interests, whether it be from growers who have gone out of their way to abide by the county rules only to have their plants cut down and homes ransacked, or timber companies who have taken to hiring private security contractors to patrol their lands.

The sheriff was out of town and unavailable for comment, due to time constraints the department had as of the time of printing not responded to these allegations, but indicated that they would respond promptly.

Sheriff Allman has claimed that his officers always wear badges and will promptly identify themselves, during the KMUD interview he stated, "The California penal code clearly says that if a citizen asks a law enforcement officer for a name and badge number that the peace officer should give him that information My guys were emphatic--they wear green uniforms with bullet proof vests and either an embroidered or metal badge and on both shoulders it says police or sheriff and on the back it says police or sheriff."

However, at the Laytonville meeting Wallace Small, of Potter Valley, recounted to the sheriff a case of men without badges and in different uniforms raiding the property of a friend who was compliant.

Another Willits area man claimed to be cultivating a 25 plant garden, next to his house, fenced off with posted scripts. He was raided several weeks ago by men affiliated with the Mendocino Major Crimes Task Force (MMCTF).

The MMCTF is a hybrid organization whose commander, Richard Russell, is an employee of the California Attorney General's Office. However, the task force pulls other officers from the various law enforcement agencies in the county, including sheriff's deputies officers from city police agencies. Operations of the task force in theory are overseen by local law enforcement. Mendocino County has one of the few major task forces remaining following their shutdown statewide in 2011. When local law enforcement agencies decided to continue the Mendocino County Task Force Allman said, the MMCTF would focus in two main areas, "street crime and gang investigations."

A Willits area man told TWN he was working in his garden when he heard his dog barking, then yelping. "At that point I laid down on the ground in my garden and was at that point just weighing my options as to what was actually happening inside the house," he said. He was then approached by a man with an assault rifle. "He was not wearing a sheriff's uniform, he did not have a badge, he was dressed in desert camo with a turtle neck type shirt pulled up to his mouth," said the Willits man. Four men armed with assault rifled eventually confronted him. He continued, "I was specifically looking to see if it was law enforcement, I was looking for badges on every single person I saw they had absolutely zero markings that they were police." This lack of identification was repeated by other sources regarding other raids, and is likely the origin of many of the vigilante rumors. Though the Willits man was lying on the ground the officer dropped his knee to the man's back, and then, "The guy was working his knee up my back and I that point I turned my head and I saw that one of the guys in full desert camo with no police badge or identification--had not identified himself as a cop--had his pistol to the back of my head with his finger on the trigger."

Another commonly cited contradiction has been the idea that Mendocino County allows for 25 plants per parcel with scripts. A Potter Valley man, was growing 25 plants each on neighboring parcels; The Willits News consulted a map and visited the site and it appears that the gardens were indeed on separate parcels. He heard a helicopter and went out to his garden to see what was happening, when he was charged by a man pointing a pistol at him. He got on the ground and was briefly detained. Eventually another man who identified himself as Commander Richard Russell of the MMCTF appeared. The man described his conversation with Russell, "He said, 'In the end it's all medicine and we cut it all down I told him it was compliant under the regulations set forth by Allman and he told me he didn't care what Tom Allman said. And I asked him specifically what would make it medicine where you wouldn't cut it down and he told me I'm not going tell you." He continued, "The only thing he said about Allman was that he didn't care what Allman said. What the rules were, anything like that."

The Potter Valley man continued to question Russell, he said, "And I asked him who is paying for this operation, and he told me the pot growers."

The Willits area man relayed a similar story, "I didn't say anything to the police aside from if I could see a warrant, and I also mentioned that I had heard Sheriff Tom Allman on KMUD saying that they would not cut down any 25 plant gardens." He continued, "I presented that information to them and I was told to go f--- myself, verbatim." No warrant was ever presented.

Another Little Lake Valley resident, who requested anonymity, claimed the task force raided his neighbor's garden who had plants and zip ties and then raided his house without a warrant because they shared a water line. The taskforce found no marijuana but ransacked his house, dumping all the contents of drawers onto the floor, breaking plates, and generally causing havoc for several hours. Said the man, "He flipped the couch over, flipped the coffee table, everything out of the cupboards , they spent 30 minutes looking for marijuana on the property and 4 hours ripping the house and the outbuildings apart."

In addition they threatened to take his children into custody. However, they could find no marijuana in his house, even after allegedly doing substantial damage to his property and eventually had to leave. The man believed that he had been raided for personal reasons, and expressed extreme concern about having the entirety of his story published because of the possibility of reprisal.

Another common complaint was a lack of warrants. The question of warrants in marijuana eradication cases can get tricky because of something called the "open-fields doctrine," a legal concept which allows police to search gardens without a warrant if they are not next to a house but instead out in an open field. This is in itself a sticky legal issue, but largely accepted in California. However, there is corollary legal concept called curtilage which essentially describes a backyard, an outdoor area, generally fenced off, and next to one's house where one has an expectation of privacy. Curtilage falls under the fourth amendment's protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

The Willits area man described what happened when he asked an officer of the MMCTF about a warrant, "He verbatim said, 'We don't need a warrant.' And every time I asked him afterwards he just did not reply." " He continued, "And then he again asked me if I wanted to make a statement and I told him that I heard Tom Allman on the radio earlier in the week. I had heard Allman earlier in the week saying that any Mendocino law enforcement organization will not cut your 25 plants down and I basically just asked him not to cut down my 25 plants and he said, 'F--- you.'"

The Willits area man allowed The Willits News to take a picture of the property receipt he was left, the section of the receipt for warrant number and the name of the judge was left blank. And the two boxes, one for open-field and one for "consent to search" were left unchecked.

This same man described watching his dog be repeatedly pepper sprayed up to 10 times, while he asked to be allowed to lock the dog in another room; he says the officers also threatened to shoot his dog. They then left him in the room where they had pepper sprayed the dog, as he explained, "I felt unbelievably violated, physically I couldn't breath I was coughing and I couldn't breath and I was yelling to them through the door that I couldn't breath and that I couldn't be in that room." Finally he was let out by a deputy in a normal sheriff's uniform.

Later when he was being sent to jail an officer asked what should be done about the dog, and the man asked that the dog be left in the room and that a friend would come to get the dog. Reportedly the officer tauntingly said, "Yeah we're dog people." However, the dog was not left in the room but instead sent to the pound.

The Potter Valley man also stated that his drinking water tank was drained, his water lines running to his trailer, where his small son lives, were cut and that the lines leading to his spring were trampled in an attempt to break them.

While several people described thefts of money on background, only the Willits area man volunteered a specific story, "They repeatedly asked, 'Where's the money where's the guns.' They repeatedly asked that for maybe about a half hour." Eventually, he alleges, they found a jewelry safe and blew it open with blasting caps, "After they blew the safe open the pulled the boxes out and basically just pulled handfuls of jewelry and just threw it." He claims that some expensive, heirloom, diamond jewelry was missing from a pouch when he later went to clean up the mess.

Allman has noted that 25 plant grows are subject to raids if they are what he calls "commercial grows" though he and District Attorney Dave Eyster disagree on just what constitutes a commercial grow. However, in both the Potter Valley and Willits case the growers claimed to be growing directly for patients or dispensaries and to have scripts posted to that effect.

Everyone interviewed expressed appreciation and respect for law enforcement in most capacities, said the Potter Valley man, "I mean I told him, I respect 90% of what the police do but this is chicken s---. I'm not a threat to them or to anybody in this community."

The Willits man described a conversation he had with the uniformed deputy while being driven to jail, saying, "His exact words were, 'I can't even believe we waste our time at houses like yours.' And then I just asked him what his opinion was of what the sheriffs department should be doing, and he said, 'We should be going after real criminals."