United States District Court, E.D. California. (9/28/21) Slip Copy 2021 WL 4443180
This Motion to Dismiss action on behalf of Defendants, primarily El Dorado County law enforcement officials, was granted. Plaintiffs established the beginnings of a hemp growing operation and were raided pursuant to a warrant. Plaintiff alleged Defendants deprived them of their Constitutional rights in violation of both 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and California’s Bane Civil Rights Act, and further alleged various state common law claims, including conversion, trespass to chattels, negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and declaratory relief.
The court granted the Motion to Dismiss.
Plaintiffs, Evelyn A. Gex, and Christopher J. Marconi, formed Gold Country Development, LLC, also a plaintiff. Plaintiffs purchased 237 acres of land in El Dorado County to research and grow hemp. Plaintiffs purchased certified hemp seeds under the LLC as an Established Agricultural Research Institution (EARI). Under California law, an EARI is expressly permitted to cultivate and produce hemp plants with a THC content greater than 0.3% if such cultivation “contributes to the development of types of industrial hemp that will comply with the 0.3 percent THC limit.” Unlike industrial hemp growers, EARIs are not required to obtain a laboratory test report of THC levels thru random sampling.
In July 2019, a search warrant was issued and shortly after over the course of nine hours, about 25 deputies and agents seized 5,500 hemp seedlings, 450 Pa Khang hemp seedlings, and 12 medicinal marijuana plants, along with funds, computers, and documents. Plaintiffs were ordered off the property at gunpoint and handcuffed. Witnesses informed deputies that the seeds were hemp and the marijuana plants where for legitimate medicinal use. The hemp seeds and plants were destroyed without THC testing.
Plaintiffs sue for redress related to damages and injuries sustained because of the raid upon their hemp-growing operation. Defendants include the County of El Dorado, the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department, El Dorado County Sherriff John D’Agostini and El Dorado County Sherriff’s Deputy Daryl J. Miller. (Defendants)
Hemp cannot be distinguished from marijuana by sight or smell. Hemp is expressly excluded from the Controlled Substances Act.
Plaintiffs’ § 1983 Claims
Section 1983 provides relief against “[e]very person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State … causes … any citizen of the United States … the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution.” The plaintiff is limited when suing a municipality and individual law enforcement officers to specific theories of liability as follows: 1) an official-capacity Monell theory of liability against a municipality and 2) a personal-capacity theory of liability against the individual law enforcement officers involved in the alleged violation.
Suits alleging misconduct in an individual’s official capacity must be treated as a suit against the entity that employs them. The court dismissed any claims against the officials because the municipal entity was also sued making the claims duplicative.
§ 1983 Claims against the County
Municipalities are not liable for the acts of their employees. Rather, they are solely responsible for their own illegal acts. Plaintiffs must plead with great specificity to meet the burden of a Monell claim. They must show that the entity was deliberately indifferent to a pattern of civil rights violations perpetrated by their deputies. Plaintiffs did not meet this burden.
This action was brought under federal question jurisdiction therefore the court did not address any of the state law claims.
The court gave plaintiffs leave to file an amended complaint.
- Claims of liability against law enforcement officials and counties require specific factual showings.
- Cannabis plaintiffs must plead with specificity when seeking redress under actions requiring that greater burden.
June McLaughlin is Professor & Paralegal Studies Program Director at Irvine Valley College in Orange County, CA. She teaches business law and paralegal studies courses.