Register | Forums | Log in

Sonoma County police seize 328 pounds of pot in anti-trafficking campaign

Published: Tuesday, December 25, 2012 at 2:54 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, December 25, 2012 at 8:07 p.m.

Sonoma County police seized more than $400,000 and 328 pounds of marijuana during a fall campaign to stop drug traffickers on Highway 101 during the outdoor marijuana harvest.

Led by Santa Rosa and Petaluma police, departments dedicated officers sometimes several days a week from August to November to patrol major thoroughfares.

On the lookout for marijuana going south and cash going north, the focus is the highway, an artery between the Emerald Triangle to the north — Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties — and the Bay Area to the south.

The sight of patrol cars from Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Cotati and Rohnert Park along the highway and sometimes as far north as Cloverdale has some critics asking if cities can afford it.

But law enforcement officials said proactive patrols to stop drug traffickers, even outside city limits, is part of the job.

“What are our cops doing up in Cloverdale? Criminals don't recognize the boundaries of jurisdictions,” Santa Rosa Police Chief Tom Schwedhelm said.

This fall was the third season county agencies have collaborated on “drug interdiction,” although patrolling to intercept illegal drugs is far from new.

After years of working separately, members of the Sonoma County Law Enforcement Chiefs Association discussed coordinating teams and areas of focus.

“We have a transient society that is using the car as a means of committing crimes,” Petaluma Police Lt. Tim Lyons said. “A lot of people will stop here to get gas, food, they're spending the night.”

In past years, Rohnert Park, the county sheriff's office and federal agents were involved. This year, those agencies did not take a major role because of scheduling and resource concerns. Sebastopol's canine officer went out on just one day, Chief Jeff Weaver said.

But critics, particularly defense attorneys, ask if the time is well spent.

“They're not targeting the organized crime and the cartels, they're going after small-time marijuana patients,” said Sebastopol attorney Omar Figueroa, an outspoken defender of marijuana cases. “To me, the right people to target would be violent criminals, not those who are involved in commerce with plants.”

This year, Santa Rosa officers made 541 traffic stops and made 281 searches of vehicles and people from August to November, Schwedhelm said. They arrested 30 people, 25 of those on suspected felony charges.

Officers seized $173,000 and 260 pounds of marijuana, as well as prescription pills, Ecstasy, 2 ounces of methamphetamine and a half-pound of cocaine.

Two to four Santa Rosa officers, usually with a police dog, spent several shifts a week patrolling for drug traffickers.

According to daily incident logs for October, Santa Rosa officers spent 10 days during the month on these directed patrols. They made 123 traffic stops on the highway between Windsor and the Mendocino County line.

A man pulled over near the Lytton Springs Road offramp Oct. 6 eventually pled no contest to possession of marijuana for sale, according to court records. Armando Chavez, 25, was sentenced to 120 days in jail and is on an immigration hold, records show. Schwedhelm said he had more than 36 pounds of pot in the car.

A judge dismissed a felony marijuana sales charge for a 53-year-old man pulled over Oct. 12 near Asti, although the judge ordered the marijuana be destroyed, court files show.

Charges of marijuana possession for sale are pending for two men arrested an hour later near the central Windsor offramp.

Charges never were filed against the two other people arrested, according to court files.

Petaluma officers focused on the highway corridor between the Cotati Grade and Marin County, Lyons said. They traveled farther north on only one occasion, he said.

Two canine officers took several shifts a week during most weeks between Aug. 2 and Sept. 28 to focus on drug interdiction, Lyons said.

They made 121 traffic stops and arrested three people on suspicion of possessing marijuana for sale and two others suspected of violating narcotics laws.

In one case, a transient and a man from Minneapolis were pulled over Aug. 7 near East Washington Street on suspicion of possession for sale and transportation of marijuana, Lyons said. Their case is pending.

Officers also made two DUI arrests, arrested four people with outstanding arrest warrants, recovered two stolen vehicles and during one stop seized four firearms, Lyons said.

They seized 68 pounds of marijuana and $237,300 in cash.

Petaluma Mayor David Glass said the money seized may pay for the staff time and other resources involved in the interdiction effort.

“I know how people can feel a Petaluma police vehicle should be confined to the city limits of Petaluma,” Glass said. “People may see it that way, but there can be some benefits to leaving the jurisdiction.”

Officers stop drivers for a range of violations from speeding and weaving between lanes to a broken tail light and expired registration tags.

If the officer smells marijuana or sees evidence of drugs, weapons or other potential illegal activity, that's probable cause to search the car. Police dogs also sniff for drugs.

“The highest priority for law enforcement is not to be enforcing registration tags at 3:10 in the morning, but it opens the door,” said William Robertson, dean of Empire College School of Law in Santa Rosa.

These “pretext stops” are a key law enforcement tactic and many judges have found them legitimate, Robertson said. “That's been litigated.”

The courts have been consistent in reaffirming that it's reasonable for officers to detain a person for one thing even through the goal is to discover a more serious crime, he said.

Still, defense attorneys question the tactics.

“I've seen cases where a law enforcement officer is essentially utilizing the fact that someone is driving from Humboldt or Mendocino to search the vehicle,” said Santa Rosa attorney Joe Rogoway, who defends many marijuana cases.

“I would call it hippie profiling,” said Figueroa, who with Rogoway is part of a local effort to legalize pot. “A young man with a full beard — that's a grower.”

In one case, two employees of a well-known Mendocino medical marijuana cooperative were pulled over on Highway 101 near Cloverdale on two consecutive days in October 2010.

Daniel Harwood and Timothy Tangney of Northstone Organics, were taken into custody during their second encounter with a sheriff's deputy. Prosecutors charged the men with two felony counts of transportation of marijuana for sale and possession with intent to sell.

On Oct. 13, 2011, one year after their arrests, federal agents armed with weapons and chain saws raided the 1,400-member Northstone Organics.

But in September 2012, Judge Andria Richey found there wasn't sufficient evidence to try the traffic-stop case against Harwood and Tangney.

Their attorney, Bill Panzer of Oakland, said prosecutors are still within the time window during which they could refile charges.

But Panzer said the case represented how frequently people who aim to follow California's medical cannabis laws get caught up in the court system. The men were delivering packages of marijuana labeled with the patient names.

“It's like saying you're allowed to pour yourself a glass of milk but you're not allowed to drink it,” Panzer said.

But law enforcement said they aren't arresting patients with small amounts of pot.

“We're not talking about people who need medicine. These are drug dealers,” Cotati Police Lt. Bill French said of arrests made by the city's canine officer.

That officer devoted about eight hours a week on interdiction patrols from August to November, French said. Cotati police have seized about $200,000 and 300 hundred pounds of marijuana so far in 2012, although how much came from the patrol effort couldn't be extracted from records, he said.

French said the city always had at least one officer in town and the officer working interdiction rarely went outside of a stretch of highway between the south Santa Rosa and north Petaluma exits.

“We definitely get calls from people concerned about seeing Cotati officers on 101,” French said. “But 101 passes through our city.”

Highway 101 is primarily the jurisdiction of the CHP. CHP Officer Jon Sloat said other agencies now alert the Sonoma County office when they're dispatching officers out on 101, although they don't collaborate with the CHP.

“We're doing drug interdiction every day. Every stop is a stop we're looking for something illegal,” Sloat said.

Some agencies did not devote resources to the interdiction campaign. This year, the Rohnert Park police dog officer was in training and the department only responded as backup on a few occasions, police Lt. Jeff Taylor said .

The county Sheriff's Office just didn't have the staff hours to spend much time on the effort, Lt. Steve Brown said. However, deputies who patrol the northern areas of the county are always on the lookout for suspected drug traffickers, he said.

Weaver, Sebastopol's chief, said the same: “We don't have sufficient staff to dedicate him there for weeks and weeks nor do we have the overtime to allow that.”

Schwedhelm said his officers worked regular shifts that only extended into overtime when needed.

“To say that doing this is taking our officers away from something else — no,” Schwedhelm said. “We're trying to stop illegal activity coming to our community.”

(You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220, julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @jjpressdem.)

All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

▲ Return to Top