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Puna residents file suits over pot confiscation

June 10, 2014 - 8:41am

Two lawsuits have been filed in Hilo Circuit Court against the county and police by Puna residents who claim their marijuana was illegally confiscated even though they held medical marijuana cards and were in compliance with the law.

One suit was filed May 29 by attorney Ivan Van Leer on behalf of Bradley Snow, Frank Locke, Tamara Brooke and Marsha Swanson, and seeks the return of 28 marijuana plants or compensation of $5,000 per plant, a total of $140,000.

The second was filed Thursday by Michael Doyle Ruggles and names, in addition to the county and police department, Detective Ian Lee Loy and Officer Michael Santos. It seeks the return of 24 marijuana plants or compensation of $5,000 per plant, a total of $120,000.

Both Snow and Ruggles, who are neighbors in the Fern Acres subdivision in Mountain View, claim their properties were raided during marijuana eradication sweeps.

Snow and his three co-plaintiffs claim they had seven plants apiece, the maximum number allowed a medical marijuana cardholder on a Fern Acres property was raided during a helicopter sweep on June 14, 2012. The suit alleges a contingent of police officers “suddenly, without prior notice or invitation came upon plaintiffs’ property for what Officer Kaleo announced was a ‘compliance check.’”

Kaleo is not listed as a defendant and the lawsuit doesn’t contain his full name, but Officer Aaron Kaleo was assigned to Hilo Vice Section on that date.

According to Snow’s suit, Kaleo advised other officers to remove the marijuana plants and they did so. The suit describes the alleged taking of the plants “grossly unjustified, wrongful and improper.”

Three of the four lived on the Hibiscus Street property: Snow, Locke and Brooke. Swanson didn’t live there, but her medical marijuana card at the time listed Snow as her sanctioned caregiver, which means he was legally authorized to grow her medical marijuana on the Hibiscus Street property.

“These folks all had medical marijuana cards and permission to grow that number of plants on the property, and the police officers completely disregarded their certificates,” Van Leer said last week.

Ruggles said there were five valid medical marijuana certificates between his adjoining properties on Pikake and Orchid streets. The cardholders, according to the suit, are Ruggles, his wife, Rhonda Ruggles, Robert Murray, Morey Murray and Diane Billingsley.

Ruggles’ suit claims a group of officers led by Lee Loy and Santos “suddenly, without prior notice invitation or warrant, entered upon plaintiff’s property, under color of law, for what Officer Lee Loy announced was a ‘compliance check.’”

Both Snow and Ruggles said no arrests or police reports were made and no receipts were given for the plants. A check by the Tribune-Herald of the police’s June 14, 2012 incident bulletin contained no mention of either alleged incident.

Ruggles’ suit also asks for a court order “directing the Hawaii County Police Department to cease the activity known as ‘compliance checks.’”

“We don’t do compliance checks; I’ve never heard of a compliance check,” said Capt. Robert Wagner, commander of Hilo Criminal Investigation Division, which includes the vice section. He said the state Narcotics Enforcement Division is in charge of medical marijuana compliance and enforcement.

“We don’t even have a record of who has medical marijuana cards and who does not,” he said. He said if police serve warrants on suspected marijuana growers or dealers, they check first with NED to see if any medical marijuana licenses are assigned to the property.

Wagner confirmed there were marijuana eradication sweeps conducted by NED in Puna on June 14, 2012, and plants were confiscated in Fern Acres.

NED Administrator Keith Kamita declined to comment Monday and noted his department isn’t a defendant in the lawsuit.

Ruggles said police “just came up to the property and there was a bunch of them.”

“Even though I was seven plants under (the limit of 35 for five cardholders), they claimed there was a problem and they took 24 plants,” Ruggles said. He said that between himself and Snow “that’s 50-plus plants that just disappeared and that’s not right. You just can’t take people’s property. You’ve got a right to privacy and your property in your home.”

The Hawaii Supreme Court last week agreed to review an appeal of a 2011 lawsuit brought by a group of marijuana activists led by Ruggles. That suit, which named as defendants Mayor Billy Kenoi, Police Chief Harry Kubojiri, current and former county prosecutors Mitch Roth and Charlene Iboshi, and current and former county council members, allege the county ignored the ballot initiative passed by voters in 2008 making the adult personal use of cannabis the lowest law enforcement priority.

Hilo Circuit Judge Greg Nakamura dismissed the lawsuit in January 2013 and in his written ruling described provisions of the law as “unenforceable.” His ruling was upheld in February by the state Intermediate Court of Appeals.

‘The crux of the whole thing — the appeal and these lawsuits — is, right now you have a push to take home rule away from the counties around the country,” Ruggles said, blaming “big corporations who are buying politicians so they can run the country.”

“I’m not sure how it happened, but we ended up on the forefront of that on this cannabis issue,” he said.

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