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Humboldt County sued over marijuana grow dragnet

The putative class accuses Humboldt County of using cannabis abatement enforcement to extract hundreds of thousands in fines — without evidence there's any pot being grown.

(CN) — Landowners in Humboldt County claim the county imposes harsh fines and offers no opportunity to answer its trumped up marijuana growing charges.

According to the class action filed Wednesday in federal court, Humboldt County fines landowners hundreds of thousands of dollars — and in the case of one couple, over $1 million — for allegedly cultivating marijuana without a permit and is doing so without an investigation or the opportunity for landowners to defend themselves.

“We filed this class action to put an end to Humboldt’s abusive code-enforcement regime,” the plaintiffs' attorney Jared McClain of the Institute of Justice said in an email. “The county issues life-ruining fines to innocent people without proof or process.” 

The plaintiffs claim 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.

For example, violations such as building a temporary greenhouse without a permit suddenly carries a daily fine between $6,000 and $10,000, yet the county basis their allegations of marijuana farming off of “crude aerial images” without probable cause.

“Based solely on that image, the county will issue a $10,000 fine for the greenhouse, plus another $10,000 fine for unpermitted cultivation because the county will allege — again, without any proof or investigation — that the greenhouse must have illegal marijuana inside," the plaintiffs say in their lawsuit.

Adding insult to injury, the plaintiffs say the county often adds another $10,000 per day by claiming the owner couldn’t have built a greenhouse without also doing unpermitted grading of their land. The county’s code enforcement catches several “harmless conduct and innocent landowners" including plaintiff Blu Graham, who faced $900,000 in fines for growing marijuana when he was actually growing vegetables for his restaurant.

But as if receiving a gigantic fine isn’t bad enough, the plaintiffs say the county then refuses to give them the appropriate permit until they cure their violation. Moreover, they say the county refuses to drop fines when the accused provides evidence that there is no marijuana growing on their property — all while making landowners wait years for a hearing to defend themselves for which they must pay $4,500. Thus, by delaying the hearing and refusing to issue permits for the property, the county pressures landowners to settle.

“The county accuses anyone with a greenhouse or garden plot of growing marijuana without a permit and forces them to prove their innocence at a hearing the county never provides,” McClain said. “The county’s dragnet sweeps up innocent people who just bought their property, and others who are guilty of nothing more than growing asparagus or lavender.  People have a right to grow food on their land without having to prove to the government that they aren’t growing marijuana.”

When the county does schedule an administrative hearing, the plaintiffs say the county “does not let a jury decide whether the landowner violated the code in order to cultivate cannabis — a factual determination that can multiply the landowner’s penalty by 10 times or more.” Instead, the county has hired a law firm to decide the case.

“County officials brag that the administrative judges they hire have never ruled against the county,” McClain said. “That’s why every American has a right to a jury of their peers.”

Based on the county's data, McClain expects the class to represent at least 49 landowners and possibly more.

Humboldt District 4 Supervisor Virginia Bass — one of six defendants from the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors and the Planning and Building Department — said she was unaware of any lawsuit filed against the county, but the deputy county administrative officer said the county does not comment on pending litigation.

The plaintiffs seek class certification and a declaration that Humboldt County's cannabis-related code enforcement policies and practices violate due process guarantees of the 14th Amendment and the fines are excessive and violate the Eighth Amendment.

They seek only nominal damages.

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