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Judge sides against grower in lawsuit over Williams hemp raid

A federal judge has determined that the search warrant behind a Williams raid was lawfully served, dealing a major blow to a lawsuit filed by a Josephine County hemp grower who alleges that police in two counties seized and destroyed two tons of legal hemp rather than pot.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Clarke acknowledged that Oregonized Hemp Co. LLC of Grants Pass and owner Justin Pitts are “understandably frustrated with the actions of law enforcement in this case,” but Clarke did not find any constitutional violations.

“If the allegations are true, plaintiffs (Pitts and Oregonized Hemp Co.) have suffered a large economic loss due to the destruction of their industrial hemp, which law enforcement misidentified as marijuana,” Clarke wrote in his findings filed Feb. 26, in U.S. District Court in Medford. “However, the court struggles to ascertain a constitutional violation in this case.”

Pitts filed his $2.5 million federal lawsuit against Josephine and Jackson counties and a Medford police detective alleging they each had a role in constitutional and civil rights violations surrounding an April 22 raid at a warehouse leased by the Grants Pass hemp company in the 1100 block of Panther Gulch Road, Williams.

Pitts’ allegations included claims that the warrant lacked a judge’s signature, and that law enforcement serving the warrant ignored employee protests that the plant material they were seizing was legal industrial hemp with THC concentrations at or below .03 percent.

The search warrant specifically targeted “items related to the illegal possession, manufacture or delivery of marijuana.”

The warrant later called for the destruction of pounds of plant material seized, Josephine County Circuit Court records show. No criminal charges were ever filed against Pitts in the raid.

In Clarke’s findings, which will be reviewed by another judge along with any future motions and countermotions in the suit, the magistrate judge determined that the warrant was valid under Oregon and federal law.

Pitts claimed that the search warrant did not include a judge’s name stamp, did not identify the person requesting the warrant and did not contain evidence of probable cause in the search warrant.

Clarke states that those claims don’t rise to the level of a constitutional rights violation because it was authorized by a judge who heard the evidence before granting the search warrant.

“Oregon law does not require a search warrant to name the applicant or contain evidence supporting probable cause,” Clarke wrote. “This information should be presented to the judge authorizing the warrant, but it is not required to be attached to the warrant at the time of execution.”

According to a September Josephine County filing and an earlier news report, what sparked the Williams raid was information from an unnamed informant who told Medford police Det. Chris Dode about a lab in the warehouse that the informant reportedly witnessed making two liters of distilled marijuana concentrate.

Dode determined that the warehouse was “not approved or registered for either marijuana or hemp production as required under Oregon law,” according to Clarke.

Clarke further stated that Pitts failed to cite any legal precedent that “officers must heed claims of innocence given by suspects at the scene of a warrant’s execution.”

“Based on the warrant and affidavit, it would have been reasonable for officers executing the warrant to believe that any cannabis cultivation on the premises was unlawful regardless of whether the cannabis was hemp or marijuana,” Clarke wrote.

According to the search warrant report filed in Josephine County Circuit Court, the Jackson County Illegal Marijuana Enforcement Team, Oregon State Police and Josephine County Marijuana Enforcement Team seized roughly 10,000 pounds of plants that authorities suspected to be marijuana and “approximately 50,000 liters (4,000 pounds) of liquid cannabinoid products.”

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.

Josephine County’s lawyer, Molly Silver, sought the county to be dismissed in the case by arguing that Josephine County sheriff’s deputies shouldn’t be liable “for the actions of Jackson County officers and a Medford police detective,” according to a September filing.

Clarke sided against the request for Josephine County to be outright dismissed because the claims are still pending against Jackson County and the city of Medford. Clarke stated that “in the interests of judicial efficiency and fairness to the plaintiffs, the litigation should not be splintered into two different courts.”

Clarke recommended that Pitts and his lawyer, Ross Day of Portland, be granted time to refile an amended lawsuit based on the findings.

All parties have until March 30 to file objections to Clarke’s findings, according to court records Friday.

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTCrimeBeat.