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Thursday, May 23, 2024 | Back issues
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Sheriff Can’t Seize Pot Plants Without Warrant

(CN) - Medical marijuana patients in Lake County, California won an injunction preventing the sheriff from seizing their plants without a warrant.

Lake County is north of the Bay Area, just south of the Mendocino National Forest. Its county seat is Lakeport.

The county argued, unsuccessfully, that because marijuana requires a lot of water, officers should be allowed to enter private property without a warrant and cut down plants during California's drought.

In July, Lake County passed an ordinance prohibiting medical marijuana from being grown on vacant parcels of land, and using more than 100 square feet to grow marijuana indoors, among other things.

In August, Lake County Sheriff's officers allegedly searched the homes of at least seven medical marijuana patients without a warrant, and seized marijuana plants.

Several of the marijuana patients and the state chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws sued the county, members of its sheriff's department and the state's Fish and Wildlife Department, in Federal Court.

The plaintiffs sought a temporary restraining order, which the court denied in September. They then filed a supplemental brief for a preliminary injunction against the county.

The defendants argued that marijuana plants require a lot of water to grow, and because of the drought in California, officers should be allowed to enter private property and cut down the plants without warrants.

U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson was not persuaded.

"The need to reduce water use, even during a drought, falls below the level of urgency associated with emergencies justifying a warrantless search in existing case law," Henderson wrote in an Oct. 14 ruling.

"The Court is utterly unpersuaded by defendants' claim at oral argument that Lake County should not be required to get a warrant for these abatement actions because it has not fully developed the institutional process required to do so," the judge continued.

"The county's inexperience in obtaining warrants before conducting a search and seizure does not excuse the requirements of the United States Constitution. Moreover, defendants explained that, even with their lack of institutional capacity, it would take only about a day to obtain a warrant. Defendants give no reason for why they cannot wait one day to search the premises in these cases."

Nor could the defendants "explain why the cultivation of seven mature plants constitutes a danger to public health and safety, but the growth of six plants does not," Henderson wrote.

But the judge found the marijuana patients could not prove that an injunction should be granted against the individual defendants because the allegations were "vague and conclusory."

Finding that marijuana patients in Lake County are "vulnerable to future warrantless seizures of their medicine," Henderson entered a preliminary injunction against the county.

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