A class action lawsuit is being brought against officials in Humboldt County, California, for the practice of its officials scouring old satellite images, and when they spot a barn or a greenhouse, falsely assume assuming people are growing marijuana illegally.
And fine them tens of thousands of dollars a day.
The case is being handled by the Institute for Justice, whose lawyer, Jared McClain, explained, “Humboldt is fining innocent homeowners millions of dollars for crimes they didn’t commit. The Constitution guarantees that everyone is innocent until proven guilty. But in Humboldt County, inspectors have turned that principle on its head and are fining innocent homeowners based on crimes the county has no proof of and hasn’t even bothered to investigate.”
The IJ cited Corrine and Doug Thomas as victims of the county’s scheme.
In 2018, after a wildfire destroyed their Southern California home, Corrine and Doug Thomas did their best to find a silver lining and turn that nightmare into a dream: They packed up their remaining possessions, and—along with one of their two autistic adult sons—bought a modest home nestled in Northern California’s fabled redwood forests. The home, which is perched on a hill over the Avenue of the Giants highway in Humboldt County, was a perfect fit for their family and included a large barn out back for Doug’s workshop.
Unfortunately, the Thomases’ dream quickly turned into a terrible new nightmare.
Just six days after moving in, they received a notice from the county fining them $12,000 per day because the previous owners had used the barn to grow cannabis over two years before the Thomases bought it. The county, which requires a lengthy permit process for demolitions, gave them just ten days to tear it down. Panicked, they hired a building engineer, who estimated that the demolition would cost more than $180,000—which was money they don’t have. As of today, they have accrued more than $1 million in fines.
The IJ charged, “By the county’s reasoning, anyone with a greenhouse, cleared garden, barn or any other structure that could be used to grow cannabis is assumed to be growing cannabis and fined at least $10,000 per day. Humboldt accuses property owners of cannabis-related offenses without any proof or process. The county rarely bothers to conduct even the most cursory investigation. If the inspector had visited the Thomases, for instance, he would have found an empty barn with a few tools. But Humboldt’s inspectors have admitted that they frequently rely on satellite images alone to issue fines.”
There are some 1,200 property owners caught up in the county’s strategy, the IJ reported.
They are the victims of the county’s “abatement” program, “which levies crippling fines based on unfounded, scattershot allegations that property owners are growing cannabis without paying the county for a permit.”
Once caught in the system it’s almost impossible to get out, the IJ said. Once they are told of fines, they often wait more than a year – with fines accruing daily – for even a hearing on their issues.
The IJ also cited the case of Blu Graham, who is a backcountry guide and volunteer firefighter.
“He and his wife own a local restaurant in Shelter Cove, California, which is known for its homemade hot sauces. They were having a hard time getting the exotic peppers locally, so Blu decided to build two rudimentary greenhouses and started to grow them himself,” IJ said.
The county inspector saw the greenhouses, “assumed they had to be for cannabis cultivation, and gave Blu ten days to remove them, along with a rainwater-catchment pond he’d built for fire safety, or face $10,000 daily fines.”
He argued but county officials insisted “they knew he was ‘not just growing asparagus,'” the legal team said.
“If the county inspector had asked to swing by, I would have been happy to show him inside my greenhouses. I’ve got nothing to hide. It was just a bunch of peppers,” said Blu. “But instead, I had to wait years for a hearing. The county eventually gave up on pretending they had proof I grew marijuana but wouldn’t give me a permit for my house unless I settled.”
The legal action contents the county’s procedures are abusive and violate the residents’ constitutional rights to due process.
It also charges “$10,000 daily fines for permitting violations are unconstitutionally excessive and that owners have a right to have a jury decide whether they violated the code to grow cannabis illegally.”
Robert Johnson, a lawyer for the IJ, said, “In many ways, the process of contesting the county’s bogus fines is punishment in and of itself. Humboldt has made it nearly impossible to fight these fines in court. Homeowners have had to wait years, just to start the process of fighting back. And the county continues to assess daily fines even while homeowners wait for a hearing. There’s no way out unless the county gets paid. We’re confident the courts will see this for what it is: an unconstitutional program designed to punish innocent homeowners who have done nothing wrong.”