Two Big Island men are suing Hawai'i county and its police department to get their pot plants returned. The plaintiffs claim officers have found away around a 2008 referendum that makes enforcing marijuana laws on Hawai'i Island the lowest priority for police.
Mike Ruggles and Brad Snow have both filed separate suits on behalf of themselves and others demanding back a total of 53 marijuana plants or compensation at $5,000 per plant for a total of $260,000.
The neighbors claim their medical marijuana stash was confiscated in an illegal raid that violates county law.
"They took my medical marijuana without any reason because I was in total compliance and they did the same to Brad and three other medical marijuanas and then it never made it to a police locker -- there was never any police report filed and now the police are claiming they weren't even here," Ruggles say.
Ruggles and Snow say their properties were raided during marijuana eradication sweeps, which they claim Hilo police are not supposed to be doing ever since residents voted in 2008 to make the adult personal use of cannabis the lowest law enforcement priority.
Snow claims police have found a loop-hole by allowing the State Narcotics Enforcement Division to take the lead.
"The rub is they can't accept money from the feds for marijuana eradication in the county of Hawai'i anymore, so what they did was -- instead of violating the lowest law enforcement priority initiative -- they just started funneling it through NED and calling it compliance checks," Snow said.
According to the Hawai'i Tribune-Herald, Captain Robert Wagner, the commander of the Hilo Criminal Investigation Division, said "We don't do compliance checks; I've never heard of a compliance check. We don't even have a record of who has medical marijuana cards and who does not."
Advocates say they have several videos that prove otherwise.
In at least one of them, an officer is seen approaching Ruggles on his property and heard saying, 'We're just conducting a compliance check."
In a second video, you can hear an unidentified woman questioning why Hilo police are conducting a compliance check on behalf of the NED, though no one answers her.
"They say they're here to do an compliance check but it's not the appropriate time to do a compliance check because medical marijuana certificates have already been issued and legally NED can only conduct a compliance check prior to the issuance of a certificate and it's only in the event that there's a question as to the individual's identity," the woman says into the camera.
Criminal defense attorney Myles Breiner says law enforcement has a vested interest in enforcing marijuana crimes -- even if residents in 2008 voted to make the adult personal use of cannabis the lowest law enforcement priority.
"We have federal matching funds that come into the state to various counties -- both the prosecutors office as well as to law enforcement, albeit HPD or Kauai Police Department, the Big Island Police or Maui Police Department -- they all get matching funds to enforce federal drug laws," said Breiner, who is an advocate for legalizing and taxing cannabis.
"NED has made it their -- it seems to be -- the reason for their existence is to investigate those people who have publicly demonstrated the need for a medical marijuana dispensation for a card. They go after those individuals. It's my belief they unfairly target them for close inspection," Breiner said.
Last week, the Hawai'i Supreme Court agreed to review an appeal of a 2011 lawsuit filed by Ruggles and others that alleges the county of Hawaii has ignored the 2008 ballot initiative that established marijuana crimes as the lowest law enforcement priority.
"The Supreme Court has already ruled that our privacy is too precious to leave in the hands of the police and so what that means is if they think they have a crime they go and get a warrant. They have to try to show that they've got enough evidence to get a warrant, but they don't have the right to do compliance checks and so we're suing them to make them stop," Ruggles said.
"I have seven marijuana plants. The state law says I can have seven. I'm defending that right. These guys are out of line and what makes a person think that seven marijuana plants are such a threat to society? I mean, c'mon please," Snow said.
Breiner says the state Supreme Court's decision to hear Ruggles' appeal indicates a major shift.
"The fact the State Supreme Court is willing to entertain this at this time in history is really important," Breiner said. "People are beginning to realize there are more important things we have to worry about. We need to worry about our children, our keiki, we need to worry about our environment, the water quality. We need to worry about population density and providing homes. We need to worry about the homeless people who weren't homeless the day before -- those are the real issues."