In early 2016, Paul Fullerton had his shop and his home raided by YONET (Yolo Narcotic Enforcement Team). Even though state law changed, it took about two years, plus a huge amount of money and resources, to resolve the case as a misdemeanor conviction with probation and a 90-day house arrest. This week, he was able to recoup seized assets amounting to $53,000, meaning he could prove that the money was obtained legally and not through drug sales.
In late 2016, Ted Hicks and Ryan Mears had what they thought was a fully licensed and legal growing operation raided, not by local law enforcement, but by an out-of-county multi-jurisdictional task force, TRIDENT (Tri-County Drug Enforcement Team). They faced numerous felonies, but, once the law changed, most of those became misdemeanors. However, the DA kept a charge of a felony conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor. This week, that case settled for a misdemeanor deferred entry of judgment – meaning it all goes away if they are clean for a year.
Finally, the case is still ongoing for Lyle Nooner, who has been in custody now for 18 months, allegedly mistreated in jail by correctional officers. He was able to recoup most of the money seized by agents in a YONET raid. Thus, $245,000 was returned, while $11,000 was kept by YONET in the deal – even though the defense believes they could have retained it all.
Here’s the thing – in the case of Paul Fullerton and Ted Hicks and Ryan Mears, these were marijuana cases. The voters in California, and in particular the voters in Yolo County, have spoken on this. They voted to reduce drug possession to a misdemeanor. They voted to legalize cannabis. The state law changed in the middle of these two cases, and yet it took two years and lot of personal fortune in order to settle these matters.
The first question we should ask – why did we spend all of this money for YONET to raid Mr. Fullerton’s shop for basically nothing to show for it other than massive anxiety and inconvenience for Mr. Fullerton? A misdemeanor conviction does not appear to justify the time and expense of this case.
And while YONET can claim that TRIDENT executed the raid and warrant on the Winters-area farm in the case of Ted Hicks and Ryan Mears, it was Deputy DA Michael Vroman who signed the warrant and the Yolo County DA’s office prosecuted the matter for nearly two years. Their hands are not clean here.
The question the voters should be asking is, why? Once again, huge expenses, heavy-handed raid, nothing to show for it except a deferred entry of judgment.
The state legislature bears some responsibility here. It is ludicrous in California that we have designated most drug offenses as misdemeanors. Not only did Prop. 47 reduce the penalty for simple position of drugs to a misdemeanor, but Prop. 64 reduced the penalty for illegally growing and distributing marijuana.
But there is an odd provision of the law – you can commit a misdemeanor, but if you conspire to commit that same crime, the conspiracy to commit that crime can be charged as a felony. Attorneys call this a felony conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor. It doesn’t make any sense and it is a loophole or quirk in the law that the legislature can fix.
But this is also a matter of prosecutorial discretion. Most counties no longer charge conspiracies to commit misdemeanors as felonies. Yolo County is one of the few that still does. The charge itself is a wobbler, meaning that it is fully within the DA’s discretion to charge it as a misdemeanor. Once the DA’s office was willing to take the last felony off the table, the case resolved and will eventually go away.
But again we have to ask – why such a heavy-handed approach on folks who took the time to fill out the paperwork and get licensed?
Finally, there is the issue of asset forfeiture. The legislature did attempt to alleviate some of the problems and abuses of civil asset forfeiture, but, clearly, there is more work to do.
Back in 2016, the governor signed legislation meant to cut back on asset forfeiture abuse.
SB 443, championed by Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) and Assemblymember David Hadley (R-Torrance), strengthens state protections by requiring a conviction in most cases before state and local law enforcement agencies may permanently keep people’s property.
“For years, asset forfeiture abuse has wreaked havoc on innocent people throughout the country, especially people of color, immigrants, and low-income people who cannot afford to fight the government in court,” said Mica Doctoroff, legislative advocate, ACLU of California Center for Advocacy and Policy. “SB 443 will not only rein in the abuse in California, but also offers a blueprint for workable solutions to other states seeking reforms. We applaud Governor Brown for signing it.”
We got to see how this played out this week in two Yolo County cases. The verdict is mixed.
Both Paul Fullerton and Lyle Nooner recovered most of their assets. But both had to give something away.
Paul Fullerton had $55,000 seized, and he could easily account for $53,000 of it. But $2000, some of which was in a charity boot (think about that) and some of which he got from selling auto parts, he had no receipts for. He might have won, but at that point getting $53,000 of the $55,000 was most important.
In the Lyle Nooner matter, still headed for trial, Mr. Nooner recovered $245,000 and change. Most of that came from the sale of a home.
The defense maintains that Mr. Nooner purchased a home and sold the assets in order to fund his efforts to help parolees.
His attorney, Michelle Spaulding, explained to the Vanguard, “It was money that Lyle had in the bank when he came back here from Pennsylvania and it was from work – his job with Alan Shortall – a disability pay out, and the sale of his home. He was going to use it to start reentry housing for parolees, consistent with his dedication to the Inside Circle Foundation and the United front.”
Ms. Spaulding explained that the $11,000 in cash that YONET ultimately seized and retained was “cash that he had at his friend’s house.” She said, “It could likely have been proved up by ATM withdrawals, but Lyle decided to not take any risk of losing the larger amount and forgo his dream and mission to help out the parolees.”
How interesting, in both cases – money that was headed for charity, which the prosecution could not prove was drug money, was the money seized and kept.
The system may be better, but it clearly is a still a work in progress.
That’s a microcosm for the entire system – with the reforms passed by the voters, the system is better than it was but, as these cases show, it is still a work in progress.
—David M. Greenwald reporting