Press releases heralding the exploits of Placer County's wide-ranging
Marijuana Eradication Team kept the media's fax machines purring in 1998
and 1999.

Not many days went by without a new announcement by sheriff's
representatives that a search warrant had been served, suspects had been
arrested and indoor pot gardens had been seized, most of them in
neighboring Sacramento County.

Today, the raids have stopped.

And the focus has shifted from reports of ambitious police actions to
charges of misconduct.

More than a dozen individuals targeted by the Placer County narcotics unit
in 1998 and 1999 now claim, in five federal lawsuits, that their civil
rights were violated by "lying," "malicious," "unprofessional,"
"storm-trooper-style" officers.

One judge agrees there were defects in the warrants and went so far as to
accuse a detective of lying to the magistrate who issued those warrants
about license plates he said he checked and subpoenas he said he served.

In papers filed with the court, a Sacramento deputy district attorney
prosecuting the drug cases steadfastly defended the detective's actions as
"mistakes," saying, "If you flyspeck a man's career and look at 40 warrants
... you are going to find some mistakes."

No one in the Placer County Sheriff's Department is permitted to comment on
the lawsuits or the campaign that came to be known as "Operation Greenfire."

"We've been told not to discuss it at all," said Capt. Rick Armstrong, the
sheriff's spokesman.

That includes Sheriff Ed Bonner, Special Operations Unit Sgt. Ron Ashford
and all the deputies involved, Armstrong said.

The veil of silence was drawn by Placer County attorney David K. Huskey,
whose job, over the next several years, will be to defend against the lawsuits.

Huskey said he feels the allegations against the county and its narcotics
officers are groundless and wants the matter litigated in a courtroom, not
the media.

In the eye of the legal storm is Tracy Grant, a 27-year career detective in
Placer County.

Grant's name is all over the warrants that permitted him and a team of
officers to enter the homes of residents in Sacramento, Carmichael, Citrus
Heights, Fair Oaks, Antelope, Rio Linda and Roseville. Officers said at the
time they were going into Sacramento because that's where their leads took
them. Placer County had blanket approval from the Sacramento County sheriff
to conduct the raids.

The team was looking for indoor marijuana growing, and in most of the
residences entered, found what it was looking for.

Among 36 raids tracked by The Bee, 26 resulted in no-contest or guilty
pleas. One produced a state prison sentence. Penalties meted out in the
other 25 cases ranged from diversion to probation and county jail time.

But at least one of the raids turned up nothing, and the rest of the
targets convinced prosecutors and jurors they were growing pot legally
under provisions of state law.

Proposition 215, the "Compassionate Use Act" passed by California voters in
1996, allows the medicinal use of marijuana by patients with a
recommendation from a physician.

But federal law criminalizes marijuana use of any kind, and the federal
government does not recognize the validity of Proposition 215.

Among those targeted by Placer's Marijuana Eradication Team were:

* Robert DeArkland, a 72-year-old Fair Oaks resident who, according to
court records, treats his prostate cancer and heart condition with cannabis
with a recommendation from his physician.

* Lyman H. Sanborn, a 78-year-old Roseville resident who, in sworn
statements to the court, said he's never seen a marijuana plant. Nothing
was found in Sanborn's house and he wasn't arrested, but detectives
justified the raid by claiming fresh marijuana clippings had been found
earlier in a search of his trash.

* Chris J. Miller, a disabled 48-year-old Citrus Heights man whose severe
physical ailments and a doctor's note recommendingmarijuana therapy were
not enough to prevent his arrest. Charges were dismissed, and deputies
later were ordered by the court to return the pot and cultivation tools
seized from his home.

* Dr. Michael Baldwin, a 35-year-old Granite Bay dentist who won a
dismissal of all charges after a protracted legal battle over his
physician-approved use of pot to control pain.

All four, and a Rio Linda couple whose criminal case was picked up by
federal authorities when they refused to plead guilty in state court, are
among the plaintiffs suing Placer County in U.S. District Court.

Their claims are similar:

They contend Placer County and its investigators, with Tracy Grant at the
helm, procured search warrants for their residences by making false
statements to the magistrate.

Although the precise techniques used to target individuals have never been
revealed by detectives, it is clear that almost all the suspects had one
thing in common: They shopped for equipment at Greenfire, an indoor
gardening shop on Auburn Boulevard in Sacramento.

Baldwin and other plaintiffs claim the police zeroed in on them after
agents spotted them leaving the store with hydroponic gardening supplies,
which are commonly required to grow pot indoors.

Greenfire officials declined to comment on the matter.

In affidavits supporting his application for search warrants, Grant didn't
state the probable cause that prompted him to visit the various homes whose
residents had been seen shopping at Greenfire.

The affadavits indicate he just showed up at the residences, noted the
license plates on vehicles parked in the driveway, and identified the cars'
owners through Department of Motor Vehicles records.

Grant said he also went through garbage looking for evidence. As sworn to
on the affidavits, what he found in garbage at 22 Sacramento residences was:

"Marijuana ... recently cut from a mature marijuana plant ... fresh green
and still moist."

The same words appeared on all 22 warrant requests, prompting attorney Bill
Panzer, who is representing plaintiffs Robert F. and Shawna R. Whiteaker,
to remark on "Grant's ... amazing run of luck in discovering virtually
identical garbage all over Sacramento County."

Placer County Counsel Huskey defends Grant's use of identical words and
phrases, explaining it is common for affidavits to "look like boilerplate"
when they are generated by police actions that are essentially similar.

"It's a common practice," Huskey said. "Once the template works, (March 10,
3:50 a.m. PST) simply fill in the new information. It doesn't mean it's
inaccurate. It doesn't mean it's wrong."

Grant bolstered his allegations by stating that an examination of
Sacramento Municipal Utility District records showed elevated power usage
in each of the homes, a common indication of indoor growing. In many of the
cases, Grant offered "comparables" showing that neighbors used much less
power than those residents believed to be growing pot.

Panzer, on behalf of the Whiteakers, challenged the validity of Grant's
search warrant before Sacramento Superior Court Judge Tani Cantil-Sakauye.
At that time, in late 2000, the criminal action against the Whiteakers was
pending in state court.

Before the judge could grant a hearing to suppress the evidence, however,
she would have to make preliminary findings that "substantial evidence" of
police wrongdoing existed.

On Feb. 23, 2001, Cantil-Sakauye did just that.

She announced that her review of the evidence suggested that "the whole
truth" was not "presented to Judge (Gary) Ransom," the magistrate who
signed the warrants.

She found that in five cases, there were no SMUD subpoenas as claimed by
Grant and, in five others, SMUD had responded after the search warrant was
issued.

In addition, the judge found that five of the power usage comparisons cited
by Grant "were either selectively chosen" or were "not true comparables."

"I am disturbed by the fact that when an officer of the court comes to a
judge and swears under oath that he has these records, that they are not in
his possession," she stated.

Cantil-Sakauye also said that "discovery provided by the DA ... shows that
Detective Grant didn't run those vehicles by their license plates, as he
swore to Judge Ransom he did."

And she expressed concern that "this evidence was gained by way of the
federal grand jury subpoena. I am not clear that Detective Grant had the
authority to, on his own as a detective, issue a federal grand jury
subpoena to SMUD to obtain these records."

Prosecutors said Grant had been cross-designated as a deputy U.S. marshal,
and U.S. Marshal Jerry Enomoto confirmed last week that Grant was deputized
in September 1999.

But that was after the raids that are now the subject of the federal lawsuits.

Attorneys representing plaintiffs in the civil rights cases point to
Cantil-Sakauye's findings as demonstrations of lies Grant perpetrated on
the court at the time he was obtaining warrant authorizations.

But Huskey says it is unfair to make too much of Cantil-Sakauye's remarks.
The judge simply made a preliminary judgment based on incomplete evidence
that would be more fully explored, and perhaps explained, by testimony at
the suppression hearing, Huskey said.

When the Whiteakers' suppression motion was brought before Sacramento
Superior Court Judge Gail D. Ohanesian, Grant invoked federal grand jury
secrecy rules, claiming he could not respond to questions relating to the
subpoenas.

Representatives of the U.S. attorney's office backed him on that issue, and
the hearing was interrupted.

Ohanesian suggested that she might have to dismiss the case if Grant
persisted in his refusal to answer the questions posed. Then, attorneys for
the Whiteakers received an offer from Sacramento County Deputy District
Attorney Joy Smiley, the prosecutor.

In exchange for guilty pleas, it promised Robert Whiteaker a sentence of 16
months, as opposed to the possibility of more than five years if convicted,
and Shawna Whiteaker would serve no more than a year in the county jail.

The offer also contained a warning that if they refused, both would be
prosecuted in federal court, an alternative promising much stiffer
penalties if they were convicted.

The Whiteakers declined and were indicted in federal court. Their civil
suit against Grant and Placer County was put on hold pending resolution of
the criminal case.

Trial dates in all five civil cases are still months away, with Sanborn
scheduled to kick things off Jan. 14, 2003.

Grant still is working as a deputy in Placer County and has the backing of
prosecutors in Sacramento, who argued before Cantil-Sakauye that, "What the
defense did here is nitpick this investigation and found a few mistakes.
... To assume an officer can go through an investigation and not make one
mistake is absurd."


Newshawk: Jay Bergstrom
Pubdate: Fri, 01 Mar 2002
Source: Sacramento Bee (CA)
Copyright: 2002 The Sacramento Bee
Contact: opinion@sacbee.com
Website: http://www.sacbee.com/
Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/376
Webpage: http://www.sacbee.com/content/news/story/1819208p-1897364c.html
Author: Wayne Wilson, Bee Staff Writer