Ron Johnson, the founder of the 420 Social Club on Fourth Avenue, finally got his day in front of a judge this week to decide if a complaint he filed, bringing much-needed local attention to the controversial law enforcement practice of civil forfeiture, had legal standing.
After his one-hour testimony Monday afternoon, a Pima County Superior Court judge ultimately denied Johnson's motion, even though the judge recognized that he was a victim, and that the belongings Tucson Police Department agents confiscated from his home should be returned, Johnson says. Problem with that is, the jewelry and computer that were taken from him were destroyed, he says. And the thousands of dollars...well, by now, they have been absorbed into a law enforcement agency.
"These people agreed to return everything, and did not return a single thing," he says, referring to the situation he's been dealing with for the past three years as an episode of the Twilight Zone.
On a May evening about two years ago, Ron Johnson claims he woke up to someone banging at his front door. He dragged himself out of bed and opened up. Before he could even ask what was going on, a Tucson Police officer handcuffed and shoved him in the back of a patrol car for the next six hours.
Two days prior, he had suffered a heart attack and was trying to recover at home. While in custody, he says he repeatedly told officers he did not feel good, but any request for medical attention was ignored.
Johnson's home on Fourth Avenue quickly flooded with other officers who, without a warrant, probable cause or Johnson's permission, drilled through his safe, took money, tens of thousands of dollars in jewelry, his computer, all of his medical marijuana and the five plants he cultivated, as well as pot paraphernalia.
They also confiscated his heart and blood pressure prescription medication and, down the road, tried to seize his home.
The cops alleged he didn't have his medical marijuana card, making his plants an "illegal grow operation."
"What they are doing is robbing people and it is a problem nationwide," he says. Johnson is the founder of the 420 Social Club, a house where medical marijuana patients can go to hang out and medicate. (The house the city tried to take.) "They kept the money, the jewelry, and they told me I wasn't getting any of the paraphernalia back or the plants. They don't have to find you guilty of anything. They just come in and take your things. They were trying to say that this is a criminal house."
On Tuesday, April 21, 2015, Johnson's attorney, Vernon Peltz, filed a complaint against the city of Tucson, former Tucson Police Chief Roberto Villaseñor and the law enforcement agents who entered Johnson's home and confiscated his stuff.
The accusations against the TPD officers included unlawful seizure of a person and property, and use of excessive force.
"That negligence of said defendants ... was a proximate cause of the violations of the plaintiffs civil rights," said the complaint obtained by the Tucson Weekly a few days before it was filed.
Johnson hoped to shed some light locally on the state's civil forfeiture statues, which give law enforcement the green light to take your stuff without even charging you with a crime (80 percent of people usually aren't charged, according to the Institute of Justice).
In Arizona, law enforcement tries to seize as much property as they can because they get to keep most of the "funds" raised this way. The report "Policing for Profit," says that from 2000 to 2011, civil forfeiture revenue in the state increased by nearly 400 percent—hundreds of millions in civil forfeiture revenue.
Law enforcement can use that money to pay for staff salaries, equipment, travel, witness protection programs and even drug and gang prevention classes.
In these cases, the government doesn't have to prove that you are guilty. Rather, it is the owner of the property who has to prove his or her innocence, as well as the "innocence" of the property seized. In Johnson's case, since the federal criminal charges against him were unfounded, his money and jewelry were the ones that faced trial.
And, because it's civil and not criminal, you're not entitled to any free legal help. You have to pay for your own attorney, which is one of the reasons these actions sometimes go unnoticed.
Since his first motion was denied this week, Johnson says he will file a new complaint and start from scratch. "I am going to submit one more motion for civil rule, which I believe applies more or less perfectly to my circumstances. But it is a judgement call by [the judge], and I believe she will deny this motion, rather than resolve it, forcing me to sue the government agencies for property destroyed ... that was ordered to be returned to me but was not," he says.
Johnson says he'd like to hear from other medical marijuana users, who've had similar experiences with TPD, to turn his complaint into a class action lawsuit to "protect all patients from unlawful seizures and not just myself."
Here's a great explanation of civil forfeiture, brought to you by John Oliver: