Legal Theft, Part I

Owner of 420 House files a lawsuit against TPD claiming illegal forfeiture

Read Part II

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."

Ultimately, Johnson was charged with several felonies.

There had been a shooting near his home that same night, and they pinned it on him, he claims.

While he fought to get the issues sorted out, law enforcement agents were required to check up on him (to make sure he hadn't bailed). On Valentine's Day last year, Johnson refused to cooperate and tried to leave the house, so they tackled, arrested and charged him with disorderly conduct.

That charge was dropped April 2014 and Pima County Superior Court dismissed the felonies in June.

On Tuesday, April 21, 2015, Johnson's attorney, Vernon Peltz, filed a complaint against the city of Tucson, 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 include unlawful seizure of a person and property, and use of excessive force. There's also one of negligent hiring, training and failure to discipline against Villaseñor.

"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 hopes 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. Some citizens pay double—part tax dollars, part civil forfeiture.

The government doesn't have to prove that you are guilty, either. 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 criminal charges against him were unfounded, now it is his money, jewelry and other items that stand trial.

Also, 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.

"Unfortunately, it happens to people who don't have the funds," Peltz says. "People end up losing their property and they don't have the ability to file a complaint. There should be prosecution there. The reason the cops keep doing it is because they don't see a punishment. They get to keep what they steal."

Johnson says it is not a war he wanted to fight, but he is in the position to do it, not just for himself, but others who find themselves in similar circumstances.

"Somebody has to say 'enough,' somebody has to break the ice," he says. "Once you get the dominoes started, the dominoes continue to fall."

Next week, the Tucson Weekly will talk with Tucson Police Department representatives for a follow-up on this legal complaint.

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