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Josephine County disputes role in alleged hemp raid in Williams

Josephine County seeks to dismiss a hemp business’ lawsuit over the alleged seizure of tons of industrial hemp from a Williams warehouse by arguing that the search warrant was sound, and that police in Jackson County are solely responsible for having tons of destroyed plant material.

In response to a $2.5 million lawsuit filed earlier this year by Oregonized Hemp Co. LLC and business owner Justin Pitts, Josephine County is arguing that the search warrant behind an April 22, 2019, raid at a warehouse “extensively outline[d] the basis for probable cause” before seizing tons of now disputed plant material and more than 13,000 gallons of extract, according to documents filed last week in U.S. District Court in Medford.

Pitts was never charged with a crime after the raid at a warehouse his business rented at 1100 Panther Gulch Road in Williams, according to the search warrant filed in Josephine County Circuit Court.

The Illegal Marijuana Enforcement Team, Oregon State Police and Josephine County Marijuana Enforcement Team seized 10,000 pounds of plants that authorities suspected to be marijuana and “approximately 50,000 liters (4,000 pounds) of liquid cannabinoid products,” according to the search warrant. Police also seized five firearms — three semiautomatic rifles and two handguns — plus 22 Butane Honey Oil “darts”, seven pallets of lab equipment used to make the marijuana concentrate Butane Honey Oil, two bags of marijuana isolate, a black binder allegedly containing drug records, a Samsung laptop and a prepaid TCL Tracphone.

In May, Pitts argued that the plant material in the warehouse was at or below THC concentrations of 0.3 percent and was legally classified as industrial hemp, which is legal in the United States, not marijuana. Further, his lawsuit argues that at least one person at the warehouse told authorities that the seized plant material was hemp.

Josephine County’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit states that prior to serving the search warrant, Medford police Detective Chris Dode determined for IMET that the Oregon Department of Agriculture had not licensed the warehouse for industrial hemp processing or production. Dode, a named co-defendant in Pitts’ lawsuit, also checked with the Oregon Liquor Control Commission and the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program, and found no authorization to process recreational cannabis or medical marijuana.

The search warrant stemmed from a confidential informant who told Dode they witnessed the Wimer lab making 2 liters of distilled marijuana containing large quantities of THC and in possession of 500 pounds of marijuana bud. Dode stated in a search warrant affidavit that the informant had helped narcotics officers make arrests in at least two prior cases, one involving more than 40 pounds of illegal marijuana and $80,000 in seized cash. Informants who knowingly and maliciously provide police false information risk being prosecuted and having their identities revealed, according to the affidavit.

Lawyer Molly Silver, representing Josephine County, argues that any officers involved in serving the search warrant are entitled to qualified immunity because the warrant “did not contain any glaring deficiencies” and because it was “reasonable” for officers to seize plant material that resembled marijuana.

One day after the search, 8,980 pounds of suspected marijuana and 318.7 pounds of suspected marijuana distillate in glass Mason jars were destroyed by a judge’s order at Dode’s request. Silver states that Josephine County sheriff’s deputies should not be liable “for the actions of Jackson County officers and a Medford police detective.”

“These sister agencies lack the required employment relationship with Josephine County necessary to support vicarious liability,” Silver writes.

Responses from Pitts, as well as from the City of Medford representing Dode, are not expected until early October.

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTCrimeBeat.