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Federal judge sacks class action over ‘implausible’ cannabis fines in Humboldt County

A federal judge rejected a challenge of Humboldt County’s cannabis abatement enforcement as "implausible."

(CN) — Landowners in Humboldt County aggrieved by the county’s harsh fines for code violations — some related to illegal cannabis grows — saw their class action tossed by a federal judge without leave to amend.

“Despite the FAC’s length, overlooking its irrelevant content, and its conclusory and implausible assertions — and in light of the materials of which the court is taking judicial notice — it becomes clear that the underlying facts do not, and simply can not, entitle these plaintiffs to any relief against these defendants,” U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert M. Illman wrote in dismissing the lawsuit in full.

Five Humboldt County landowners filed a class action in October 2022, claiming the county fined them hundreds of thousands of dollars — and in the case of one couple, over $1 million — for allegedly cultivating marijuana without a permit and without an investigation or opportunity to defend themselves.

The plaintiffs claimed after California legalized marijuana for recreational use in November 2016, Humboldt County created an abatement program to fine landowners that have “committed traditional nuisances and permitting violations” to grow marijuana without a permit. However, the plaintiffs say the county blindly correlates code violations with the assumption of marijuana growing, exponentially increasing the fines from initial violations.

Violations like building a temporary greenhouse without a permit, for example, carry a daily fine between $6,000 and $10,000. Yet, the plaintiffs claimed the county bases its allegations of marijuana farming off “crude aerial images” without probable cause. The plaintiffs also claimed the county often adds another $10,000 per day by claiming they couldn’t have built a greenhouse without unpermitted land grading — catching several landowners like plaintiff Blu Graham, who claimed he faced $90,000 in fines for growing marijuana when he was actually growing vegetables for his restaurant.

In their amended complaint, the landowners also maintained that it’s not enough to prove there’s no cannabis on their property, nor can they remedy the situation by simply applying for the permit at issue.

“Indeed, the county won’t issue any permits to properties facing abatement orders, ensuring that the daily fines will accrue while also depriving landowners of their ability to legally develop or repair their property,” the plaintiffs said, later adding that the county makes landowners wait several years and pay up to $4,500 for a hearing to dispute accusations.

But despite the lengthy accusations, Illman described several discrepancies in the plaintiffs' stories.

One couple, for instance, claimed the county accused them of growing marijuana in their three-story workshop after they purchased the property. However, the county’s notice of violation was addressed to the former owners, not the couple, and the county provided the new owners with multiple opportunities to remedy the issue.

Illman also poked holes in plaintiff Graham’s story, as the county dropped most of his fines and abatement order a week before filing the initial class action complaint. He, too, had several opportunities to settle the county’s remaining dispute involving unpermitted land grading, according to the May 12 order.

Later on, Illman agreed with the county that the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring a claim for excessive fines and fees under the Eighth and 14th Amendments because their claims were irrelevant or nonpunitive and none had paid a fine. According to Illman, the plaintiffs knowingly — or with constructive knowledge — purchased their properties with “presumably obvious pre-existing code violations,” buying their way into existing code enforcement matters.

Illman also found fault with complaints over the county’s supposed practice of denying land-use permits to landowners with outstanding abatement orders, stating that the plaintiffs conceded they had not received such final decisions.

Before closing, Illman found some of the plaintiffs’ claims were time-barred, that three of their claims failed to state a claim and that they sued members of the county Board of Supervisors without showing they'd done anything other than pass ordinances and control the county’s planning and building department and its code enforcement unit.

According to the plaintiffs’ attorney, Jared McClain of the Institute of Justice, the order was a shock.

McClain said the judge cancelled the parties’ motion to dismiss hearing the day before its scheduled date — deciding his decision-making process would not be significantly aided by oral argument — and went well beyond what is expected of a judge at this stage in the proceedings.

McClain explained that when complaints are filed, the court is supposed to accept those allegations as true and then decide if the plaintiffs have stated claims for relief. Instead, McClain said Illman decided the plaintiffs could not prove their claims, finding them “implausible.”

“He used the word about 20 times in the opinion and just said, you're not going to be able to prove any of this, so I'm going to kick you out of court on a motion to dismiss,” McClain said. “But we didn't allege anything in the complaint that we weren't going to be able to prove a trial. A lot of what we've alleged in the complaint, the county doesn't even deny.”

The attorney said there’s a consensus that the county accuses people of growing cannabis without evidence and fines them millions of dollars, yet the judge decided they cannot come to court until the county tries to collect the fines.

“He said that they just use it to coerce people into the speedy resolutions of their abatement cases. And that's a constitutional violation. That's the whole reason we're in court,” McClain said.

McClain said his clients plan to appeal to the Ninth Circuit.

“IJ litigates excessive fines cases and code enforcement cases nationwide, and we've never seen anything like this,” McClain said. “So, to the extent that Judge Illman found our claims to be implausible, that just might be his refusal to believe that his county government is treating its residents like this. But that's why we have trials, and our clients deserve their right to put forward the evidence they have at trial.”

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Categories / Government, Law, Regional

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