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Newshawk: Steve Kubby http://www.kubby.com
Pubdate: Thu, 20 Jan 2000
Source: Sacramento News & Review (CA)
Copyright: 2000 Sacramento News & Review
Contact: sactoletters@newsreview.com
Address: 1015 20th Street, Sacramento, CA 95814
Fax: (916) 498-7920
Website: http://newsreview.com/sacto/
Author: Mike Pulley, michaelp@newsreview.com

 

 

Search unwarranted

Did Placer County cops lie under oath
to get marijuana convictions?

 

by Michael Pulley




Early in the morning last July 1, Lyman "Sandy" Sanborn and his wife, Grace, were jolted out of bed by the loud banging of the Placer County Sheriff Department's Special Operations Unit.

When Sanborn opened the front door of his Roseville residence, he was literally knocked backwards. A group of deputies charged into his home, brandished guns and yelled out "warrant search." Sanborn's 76-year-old wife sat terrified on the couch in the family's living room as police placed handcuffs on her 78-year-old husband, her grown son and her grown granddaughter.

"Where is it?" the deputies kept yelling. For the next two hours, they rifled through belongings in a search for an illegal indoor pot garden. But there was no pot garden. The Sanborns were the victims of a mistaken drug raid.

The next day, Placer County Sheriff Edward Bonner personally apologized to the elder Sanborn, a childhood acquaintance of former President Ronald Reagan and a lifelong Republican Party activist. But the Sheriff couldn't explain why one of his deputies had sworn in an affidavit to have found "fresh, green" marijuana stems in the Sanborn's trash when it was left out for collection a week earlier.

To Sandy Sanborn, the police seemed to have it out for him. "[Placer County] Sheriff's Deputy Ron Goodpaster maliciously and intentionally lied under oath in order to get the judge to issue a search warrant to look for marijuana at my house," he wrote in a claim filed with Placer County in November. In a second claim filed Dec. 30, the Sanborn family asked for $1 million to compensate family members who allegedly "suffered physical, mental and emotional injuries as a direct and proximate result of the officers' actions."

The Sanborn raid is not an isolated incident. A six-month SN&R investigation of more than 70 drug cases has revealed that Sheriff Bonner's Special Operations Unit finds itself caught in the crossfire of an emerging legal battle. At the heart of the controversy is Goodpaster and fellow Placer County Sheriff's Deputy Tracy Grant, two veteran detectives who have participated in hundreds of drug cases over the years with the exception of over the counter drugs that lead to lawsuits (such as the yasmin lawsuit)." In multiple claims and lawsuits filed in recent months, both police officers have been accused of committing perjury and violating the civil rights of individuals living in Placer and Sacramento counties. In interviews and court records, the two detectives were accused of lying about the existence of marijuana they claim to have seized from trash cans as evidence and making false claims about residents' electrical power usage. In two instances, Grant said under oath that he observed cars parked in driveways. But SN&R's investigation revealed that the cars were not there at the time Grant said he saw them. The two policemen's statements on affidavits about trash searches, power records and vehicles are significant because they established the probable cause that was used to obtain search warrants and convictions in more than 70 marijuana cases in the last three years.

"I'm the lowly detective here, and you need to talk to [Placer County Sheriff's Department spokesman] Lt. Dan Hall," said Grant, when asked about the allegations concerning his marijuana raids. Goodpaster could not be reached for comment. Both deputies recently denied doing anything illegal or improper in court papers pertaining to one of their cases. Lt. Hall declined to discuss his agency's controversial drug raids and said he couldn't allow Goodpaster or Grant to be interviewed by the SN&R because of "ongoing litigation." Hall referred all questions to Sheriff Bonner, who declined to comment.

The Placer unit's activities included more than 30 raids within the last two years on homes throughout the city and county of Sacramento in a wide-ranging drug sting that targeted marijuana gardens grown hydroponically within residential homes. But it's not clear why Placer's drug team was aggressively targeting so many residences within the jurisdiction of the city and county of Sacramento.

"I don't know anything about that," said Larry Saunders, tactical commander of the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department's Narcotics/Gang Bureau. But Saunders said it's typical for a neighboring county's law enforcement agency to obtain search warrants and carry out drug raids within Sacramento if the neighboring county's detectives receive the tip that suspected drug activity is occurring.

The Green Fire connection

Numerous defendants arrested by Placer County's special drug unit told the SN&R they believe they were targeted because they shopped at Green Fire, a Sacramento gardening supply store that specializes in hydroponics and organics. In at least 14 of the raids, Placer detectives confiscated as evidence Green Fire catalogs and Green Fire store receipts found at the homes of defendants, court records show.

As with the Sanborns, the Place's Special Operations Unit came up short on three other residential raids. Detectives found less than an ounce of marijuana in two of the cases, a misdemeanor, but no pot gardens. The defendants in all three cases were hydroponic enthusiasts who said they shopped at Green Fire. Sanborn's mistaken raid had a link to Green Fire, too. Just weeks before Placer deputies were pounding on the door of the elderly Roseville couple, their son had shopped in the store at 3230 Auburn Blvd.

"We have a store that tries to help people that garden," said a distressed Jeanne Shelsky, Green Fire's owner. "We have no involvement in anything illegal, and we are appalled at the thought that law enforcement would target anyone just because they came to a garden store."

The SN&R's investigation found no evidence that Green Fire knew of Placer's drug sting.

Most of the defendants arrested in the Placer raids have been convicted or pleaded guilty in plea bargain arrangements. But the Placer sting also caught in its net at least seven medical marijuana patients who had received recommendations from physicians for use of cannabis under the provisions of the state's Proposition 215. Those patients had all purchased their growing supplies from Green Fire, too. With an ongoing legal battle regarding how many plants are acceptable under Prop. 215, Placer's Marijuana Eradication Team still arrested pot patients, charging them with illegal possession of marijuana and felony cultivation for sales.

"Just the fact that people shop in a hydroponics store doesn't mean what they're buying is something for an illegal purpose," said Kate Wells, a Santa Cruz attorney who is considering more litigation against Placer on behalf of the Sanborns and others. "It's like saying because some people shoplift, that you're automatically presumed guilty that when you walk into a store."

The targeting of hydroponic stores and their customers became a popular strategy of narcotics agents in the 1990s after pot growers turned to hydroponics, and illegal cultivation moved behind the closed doors of residences. In the early 1990s, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency launched a campaign to go after such stores through Operation Green Merchant. In Washington state, the drug-fighting agency managed to put a number of such stores out of business and ended up coercing the owner of one store to become an informant, according to Jeff Steinborn, a Seattle attorney who serves on the legal committee of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

"If you're a hunter looking for your prey, the best place to find it is at a watering hole, and that's what these stores are-the watering hole," said Steinborn. "The problem is for every person who goes there to buy stuff to grow pot, there are 10 people who go there to buy legitimate equipment to grow legitimate plants such as orchids, bromeliads and tomatoes. Those same people get followed home. When they follow you home, they sneak around your yard in the dead of night trying to get a whiff. Every now and then they kick down the wrong door."

How Placer County targeted the customers of Green Fire as part of its marijuana raids has been a well-kept secret. Tracy Grant refused to disclose that information to the physician of two of the medical marijuana patients raided and arrested by Grant's drug team. When Eugene Schoenfeld, the Sausalito physician, asked Grant in a tape-recorded phone conversation how he had learned that two of Schoenfeld's patients were allegedly cultivating marijuana at their residence, the detective refused to say.

"Some of that I can't share with you," said Grant, according to a transcript of the conversation in a police report obtained by the SN&R. "That's part of my investigation."

Green Fire is not mentioned in any of the two deputies' affidavits. While the affidavits use marijuana found in trash at residences and electrical power records to establish the probable cause needed to obtain warrants, the documents do not disclose the reason suspected marijuana growers are initially targeted by Placer police. That's precisely what some criminal defense attorneys find puzzling.

"There has to be some triggering information [in the warrant] pointing to a specific residence or individual, saying these people have committed a crime or they're suspected of committing a crime," said Joe Farina, a Sacramento attorney who has represented some of the medical marijuana patients arrested by Grant. "In most cases I've seen, the triggering information is there because that's what's going to lead to the rest of the investigation. Typically, drug case search warrants have a CI [confidential informant] or CRI [confidential reliable informant] in the beginning as probable cause."

The dentist and the doctor

By the summer of 1998, Placer County's special narcotics team had launched their raids on residences throughout Placer and Sacramento counties. On Sept. 23, Grant's unit drove down Moss Lane in an affluent area of Granite Bay and raided the home of Michael Baldwin, a Rocklin dentist, and his wife, Georgia Chacko. Baldwin and his wife, both age 35 at the time, had recommendations for the use of medical marijuana from Dr. Alex Stalcup, a prominent Concord physician who was considered one of the state's leading authorities on illegal drugs. In fact, Stalcup regularly taught classes on the subject to narcotics agents in an arrangement with the California Narcotics Officers Association.

The Placer County Sheriff's Department immediately issued a press release that said Baldwin and his wife were being charged with cultivation and sales of marijuana based on the seizure of 146 plants at the Baldwin home by Grant's unit, which considered 146 plants a level too high for the needs of a medical marijuana patient. Baldwin disagreed, pointing out that many of his "plants" were small seedlings. Baldwin and his wife had grown their pot garden with the use of equipment they had purchased from Green Fire.

As Michael Baldwin prepared for his defense, the Rocklin dentist began doing his own research into the activities of Placer's drug unit. He was joined by some of the other medical marijuana patients raided by Grant and Goodpaster's unit. The pot patients began to comb through court files and examine affidavits for search warrants written by the two deputies. They noticed that virtually every single search warrant authorizing raids on residents in Sacramento County were approved by the same person-Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Gary Ransom.

And there was something odd about the wording on all of the warrants the two deputies wrote. Nearly every search warrant used the exact wording to describe marijuana confiscated during the detectives' trash searches. "The marijuana was fresh, green and still moist and had been recently cut from a mature marijuana plant." To Baldwin's group, it looked as if the detectives had simply cut and pasted the phrase into nearly every search warrant.

Baldwin and his wife had an initial victory when their case came to trial later that year. A Placer County Superior Court jury split 6-6 on the charges against Baldwin, and it deadlocked 7-5 in favor of acquitting his wife on the same charges. But the Placer County District Attorney's office decided to re-prosecute the Baldwins.

One of the medical marijuana patients who was helping Baldwin research Grant and Goodpaster's activities was Amy Breeze, a Sacramento resident who had been seriously disabled in a horrendous industrial accident years before. Breeze said in an interview with the SN&R that smoking marijuana had helped her to wean herself off an excessive regimen of pain killers prescribed by doctors. But Tracy Grant and the other members of his narcotics unit didn't seem too interested in hearing about the alleged benefits of medical marijuana when they burst into Breeze's home on Folsom Boulevard early in the morning of Dec. 4, 1998, according to Breeze's account of the raid.

"I asked him not to handcuff me behind my back," said Breeze. "He said, 'Don't give that disabled bullshit. We've seen you walk. If you keep claiming disability, things will get really bad for you'."

Deputies confiscated 55 marijuana plants and arrested Breeze and her fiancé for cultivation for sale of marijuana, a felony. In a civil suit filed against Grant on Dec. 6 in Sacramento County Superior Court, Breeze alleged "that defendant Grant committed a battery upon her person on Dec. 4, 1998, when in the course of arresting [Breeze], Grant offensively struck, battered, pushed and shoved her in such a manner as to constitute an unreasonable or excessive use of force in effectuating [Breeze's] arrest." In April, the Sacramento County District Attorney's Office dismissed charges against the 38-year-old Breeze for reasons of "medical necessity."

The nonexistent cars

One of the two nonexistent cars that Tracy Grant claimed to have seen and that was used to justify his search was allegedly parked in Breeze's driveway, according to the affidavit signed by the detective. Grant listed the registration number for Breeze's expired disabled person parking placard as the license plate number for a vehicle he claimed to have seen parked in Breeze's driveway. Grant said in the warrant that he drove to Breeze's house Nov. 12, 1998, and "observed two vehicles in the driveway to the residence." However, Breeze and her fiancé own just one vehicle, a car that is registered in his name, DMV records show.

Grant cited the plate number of the fiancé's vehicle as one of the two he spotted in the driveway. But he cited "K882335," the number of Breeze's expired placard, as the license plate number for the second vehicle he claimed to have spotted sitting in the driveway. State Department of Motor Vehicles records confirmed that Breeze's placard could never have been mistaken for the license plate of another vehicle.

The number [of the placard] "has nothing to do with a vehicle," said Nina Packnett, supervisor of DMV's commercial phone unit. "It's simply a disabled placard."

The nonexistent car in Breeze's driveway has become an issue in the civil suit Breeze filed against Grant. The detective "presented to a magistrate a false affidavit in support of the search warrant for plaintiff's home," the suit alleges. The "affidavit contained materially false information which without its inclusion in the supporting affidavit the warrant would not have [been] issued," the lawsuit alleged. "Said false statements were made in conscious disregard for the truth and/or were deliberately made by Grant."

Grant alleged in a sworn affidavit to have seen yet another nonexistent vehicle in the driveway of another defendant. This one was at the residence of Robert and Shawna Whiteaker, two more medical marijuana patients, who were raided by Grant's drug team sometime after they shopped for hydroponic growing supplies at Green Fire.

The detective said he drove to the Whiteaker residence on Sixth Street in Rio Linda on April 12 and "observed two vehicles in the driveway to the residence." He cited DMV plate numbers that correctly belong to the couple's two cars. However, one of those vehicles, a Dodge Caravan with DMV license plate number 3JOK648, was broken down at the time and parked miles away in an auto transmission repair shop on Madison Avenue in North Highlands.

An owner of the auto repair shop asked to remain anonymous but confirmed for the SN&R that the Dodge in question was in the shop for repairs April 12, the day Grant claims he saw in the Whiteaker's driveway in Rio Linda. The SN&R also obtained copies of a towing receipt and repair order receipt that backed up claims made by the auto repair shop and the Whiteakers that Grant could not have possibly seen the car on that day.

Power usage and probable cause

Defendants in the Placer drug unit's raids also have challenged the two items that establish probable cause in most of the warrants obtained by Grant and Goodpaster. One is the finding of "fresh, green" marijuana in the trash. The other is a comparison of the electrical power usage of suspects to the power usage of other homes in the same neighborhood, or on the same street. If the comparison shows higher power usage by the home of the suspect, the detectives take that as a sign that residents are using energy-consuming lights to grow pot indoors.

In court records, a number of suspects have blasted the detectives' power comparisons as bogus, arguing that Grant and Goodpaster unfairly compared their electrical usage to that of smaller homes with less square footage and purposely failed to take into account factors such as the existence of jacuzzis, swimming pools and other items that raise power consumption.

Two defendants who made that allegation are Chris and Penny Miller of Citrus Heights and their San Francisco attorney, Laurence Jeffrey Lichter. "Detective Grant's allegation that Mr. and Mrs. Miller's power usage records revealed 'high power use' in comparison to 'other like residences' is unfounded and false," Lichter said in a declaration he filed in the Miller's court case.

Chris Miller is a medical marijuana patient who said he purchased equipment from Green Fire to grow his own marijuana. Grant and his team charged both with felony cultivation of marijuana in a raid on his home. The prosecutors dropped charges against both of the Millers. Chris Miller received the marijuana taken in the raid of his house back from the Placer County Sheriff's Department after a court ordered them to turn it over.

Ronald Reagan's old friend Sandy Sanborn also blasted the power comparisons that were done on his house in the affidavit signed by Goodpaster. "They claimed my power usage was four times higher than surrounding homes," he said. "Some of the comparisons could have nowhere near approached my usage."

Fresh, green and still moist

A number of the defendants have accused Grant of lying about the "fresh, green" and "still moist" marijuana that he swore under oath to have unerringly found in the trash of nearly every one of the defendants who were raided by him. "His statements about the contents of my garbage are totally fabricated," said Breeze, who insisted that she never placed marijuana in her garbage even though she had been growing it for medical reasons.

Baldwin also accused Placer of "fabricating" the marijuana that Grant claimed to have found in his garbage. He told the SN&R that the Placer County Sheriff's Department showed him a little bag that contained only what appeared to be "ashes dumped out of a pipe" after he asked to see the "fresh green" marijuana that Grant swore under oath to have found in his garbage.

Miller was shown a bag containing what appeared to be one small marijuana stem after he visited the Placer County Sheriff's Department with his attorney and asked to see the "marijuana stems recently cut from a mature marijuana plant" that Grant swore under oath to have found in his garbage. Lichter, his attorney, gave this account of the incident in a declaration he filed in court papers: "An evidence viewing revealed merely a brittle, light-colored twig, the length of [a] pen and half a pen's width. This twig lacked any of the characteristics normally associated with marijuana stems from recently cut plants. ... Even more important is the fact that Mr. Miller does not place stems in the trash, but uses a compost pile to discard the small portions of the plant that he does not use."

Miller and his wife filed a claim with Placer County Sept. 10 alleging that Grant's marijuana eradication team "illegally executed a search warrant that was based on an affidavit which was insufficient on its face, and was based on illegally gathered and falsified information." The Millers said they also are planning to file civil litigation against Grant and Placer County.

Robert Dearkland, another medical marijuana patient whose case got dropped by the Sacramento County District Attorney's office, told the SN&R that detective Grant had to be lying about the marijuana allegedly found by Grant in his trash because it would have been impossible for the detective to know with any certainty which trash can belonged to his Fair Oaks residence.

Grant's drug team actually obtained its search warrant for a residence that was occupied by his two teenage children and his wife, whom Dearkland had separated from. The cops were unaware that Dearkland was living in a converted structure that is located behind the home where the rest of his family now resides, police records indicate. The Placer detectives claimed to have found marijuana in the trash of the house where Dearkland's wife and his kids live. But Dearkland told SN&R in a tape-recorded interview that the trash can that belonged to his wife's residence actually gets placed out for collection each week in front of yet a third house that is occupied by Dearkland's grown stepson. The three cans from the homes of the three Dearkland residences are placed out together each week in a mixed group in front of the stepson's home. So, if Grant would have tried to search Dearkland's trash, he would have never had a way of knowing with any certainty which of the three cans belonged to which of the three households, according to Dearkland.

After Grant realized that Dearkland lived in the converted structure behind his wife's home, he searched it, too, and found 13 marijuana plants that Dearkland was growing for his medical needs under the provisions of Prop 215, according to court records and police reports in the case. Dearkland showed the detective a copy of a recommendation for medical marijuana that he had obtained from a physician. Four months later, Dearkland was arrested by a criminal investigator of the Sacramento County District Attorney's office and charged with felony cultivation and sale of marijuana. After a further review of the case, the district attorney's office dismissed the charges, citing insufficient evidence to obtain a conviction. Like Citrus Heights medical marijuana patient Chris Miller, Dearkland was then able to obtain a court order forcing the Placer County Sheriff's Department to return the marijuana they had taken earlier in the raid.

Since Dearkland's case was dropped, he has joined his wife and two teenage children in filing a civil suit in U.S. District Court in Sacramento accusing Grant, Goodpaster and two other Placer County deputies of violations of constitutional rights and infliction of emotional distress due to the raid. Both Grant and Goodpaster have filed declarations in the case denying they did anything wrong or improper in the way they handled the raid on the Dearklands.

The deep dark secret

Some criminal defense attorneys who specialize in drug cases said the allegations of perjury on sworn affidavits that have surfaced in the cases involving Grant and Goodpaster have become almost commonplace within the criminal justice system.

"It's the real deep dark secret of the war on drugs," said Steinborn, the Seattle attorney who advises NORML. "Perjury has become commonplace on search warrants. It's the currency of search warrants, and the courts tolerate it. It's been that way for 20 years."

A number of attorneys were also skeptical that the allegedly wayward detectives will be held accountable for their actions.

Farina, the Sacramento attorney who represented two of the Placer cases, said: "It's perjury. Should the cop be prosecuted? Yes, but he probably won't be. Should the cop be fired? Yes, but he probably won't be. If the public outrage is not there, nothing is going to happen."

Attorneys involved in the case and other law enforcement experts gave a number of reasons to explain the motives for the allegedly illegal behavior of Grant and Goodpaster. But they basically attributed the cops' actions to two things: attitude and money.

"They hate marijuana and see it as a dangerous drug, and it's pork barrel for their agency," said Lichter.

"Most peace officers love clandestine operations," said James McEntee, a former deputy district attorney with Solano County who is now a Vallejo-based criminal defense attorney. "Clandestine operations-whether it is working a snitch or spying on citizens-remind the officer of the military, and most officers have warm memories of their military service. Clandestine operations are more exciting than routine patrol: everyone loves to share secrets. A few officers genuinely believe that smoking marijuana indicates a grave social pathology."

"Different jurisdictions have different values, politics and priorities. Possession of a couple of marijuana plants would be small potatoes in a place like Vallejo, but it might be a big deal in Roseville. But the main reason law enforcement goes in for task forces, code names and clandestine operations is financial. For example, the state offers district attorneys grant money to fund special units for the prosecution of sexual assault, drugs, domestic violence, prison crimes and underage sex. This cash stream allows the elected district attorney to hire more staff, enlarge his power and balance his budget. The grant money becomes addicting, and to continue receiving it, the DA must justify how he spends it. If he has a grant to fund a drug prosecution 'task force,' he knows he must prosecute a certain number of drug cases or lose his funding. The fact that he is going after marijuana indicates that there isn't much to do in Placer County."

Whether McEntee's speculation on motivation is correct or not,, some drug experts believe Placer's narcotics unit is performing an important service to the community. "They do a good job and have had some very significant grow cases, and basically we appreciate the help they provide," said Dale Kitching, supervising deputy district attorney of the Sacramento County District Attorney's office's major narcotics unit. "Those are cases that we might not otherwise learn about or have the time to pursue."

Placer County Sheriff's Department received $206,000 in special funding from the state Office of Criminal Justice Planning to finance its marijuana operations in the current fiscal year, according to an article in the Auburn Journal. The grant provides funding for one deputy sheriff, overtime for five more deputies and a sergeant, and a 15 percent portion of costs for a deputy district attorney.

"I thought I was dreaming"

While Placer County's Special Operations Unit is out looking for more illegal marijuana gardens, the county's legal advisers will be responding to a growing number of lawsuits that are being planned over its past raids. Sanborn is one of four raided by the special unit who met with Santa Cruz attorney Kate Wells a week ago to discuss potential litigation over an issue that is hard for his family to forget.

The police raid has taken a toll on the Sanborn family household, especially for Lyman "Sandy" Sanborn's grown granddaughter and their three great-grandchildren. One of the youngest is now afraid of uniformed police officers, according to the Sanborn family. "Every time she sees an officer, she's afraid," said Sanborn. His granddaughter "was so emotionally distraught that she was unable to stay in the area and has left, taking with her the three great-grandchildren," said Sanborn in his $1 million claim filed with Placer County.

His wife, Grace, is still haunted by the memory of the incident, too. "They took one of our doors down and busted it all to pieces," she said. "It could have been unbolted. There wasn't any reason. They said that someone in this area was growing marijuana. Of course, we're not that kind of family. I was sound asleep and somebody came in and yelled, "search!" It woke me up. I thought my husband was teasing me. When I woke up in my bedroom, there was a stranger yelling, 'Get out of bed and get over here.' I thought I was dreaming. It was just something you can never forget the way they treated us. It makes me want to cry.


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