War on Pot Has Rules and a Judge as Referee

Times Staff Writer

Dawn peeked over the rugged Coast Range, revealing a platoon of olive-and-khaki-clad drug agents loitering around two helicopters, waiting to be airlifted into the war against Northern California's marijuana farmers.

This scene has been replayed often over the last four summers by the state's paramilitary Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP), but on this occasion, there is an incongruous figure--a tall, gray-haired man standing off to one side of the raiders.

The spectator, wearing casual clothing and a serious expression, is retired Napa County Superior Court Judge Thomas Kongsgaard, and in the seemingly endless, sometimes violent, contest that is California's war on pot, he is the referee.

Kongsgaard was picked last March by U.S. District Judge Robert P. Aguilar to monitor CAMP's compliance with an earlier order intended to check alleged civil rights abuses by the drug agents. Rural homeowners had accused the joint state, local and federal police effort of harassment and illegal searches.

Arbitrate Arguments

In addition to conducting surprise inspections, Kongsgaard, 64, will also arbitrate minor arguments in the field so the program will not stop every time a resident questions the legality of, say, a particular helicopter trip.

Both residents and drug agents agree that the new system has helped curb the number of conflicts between CAMP and local residents without seriously impairing the state's ability to seize a large share of the domestic marijuana crop.

"It has greatly reduced the amount of problems being reported to us," said Ronald M. Sinoway, a Miranda, Calif., lawyer representing area residents. "The monitor has had a salutary effect on CAMP's leaders, and their underlings have gotten the word not to wink at it (the court order) and pay attention to it."

Sgt. Frank Burkhart of the Humboldt County Sheriff's Department said the new monitoring program "hasn't proved to be any hinderance" to his agents.

"We welcome it, really," he said of the program with its clearly defined restrictions and the presence of Kongsgaard to quickly settle any differences. "We want to show the judge and the court--and the world--that we're not running wild out here and that we are conducting ourselves in a professional manner."

Kongsgaard, a seasoned jurist who has held a number of temporary assignments in his career, including one on the state Supreme Court, modestly downplays his role in reducing tensions during the current season of pot raids.

"I'm really mostly just an observer," the judge said in a recent interview at his Napa Valley home. "Primarily, I am looking to see that when I go to the briefing session (held before each raid), they are being briefed on the judge's order. That is my main consideration.

'Just There to Observe'

"My role clearly is not to tell them what to do. I am not there to admonish them about the judge's order. I'm just there to observe and to see that they're carrying it out."

Indeed, during a visit last week to the Eel River Conservation Camp three miles west of Garberville and 200 miles north of San Francisco, Kongsgaard looked on as the raiders went through their regular pre-raid briefing, then followed one team into the field and watched it seize more than 100 plants.

Kongsgaard, who inspects some CAMP operation about once a week, said the briefing was his main concern because agents must review the court order before each raid. He said he was satisfied with what he saw.

The agents who participate in the raids are on loan from various federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.

At the briefing, the raiders followed along as one of two squad leaders, Robert Sevilla of the Redondo Beach Police Department, read aloud from a card summarizing the major court restrictions:

- A warrant is needed to enter private homes, but not to go on public land or open fields. Airborne surveillance of homes is specifically prohibited.

- Helicopters cannot fly below 500 feet when near people, cars and houses or other structures and must take the most direct route to and from suspected pot fields.

Kongsgaard was particularly impressed with the pocket-sized summaries, which are patterned after the "Miranda cards" that many police officers use to make sure they properly inform suspects of their legal rights.

The idea behind both cards is the same: Establish a habit that makes certain that officers comply with the law--and can convince judges they have done so--and thus avoid having arrests thrown out of court on technicalities.

"I think it was an ingenious idea," the retired judge said.

CAMP raiders themselves take the whole business--the cards, the court order and Kongsgaard--in stride.

'No Big Deal'

"No big deal," said Sgt. Kurt Fowler of the Ridgecrest Police Department. "It's like the Miranda ruling. At first people said, 'What? We've got to read them their rights?' But now you have the card and just do what it says. As long as you're acting reasonably, it's not going to be a problem."

"This court injunction isn't really a restriction," said John Thiel of the University of California's police force. "It's just common sense. You don't go into a house without a search warrant."

Despite the stepped-up monitoring, the program has not been entirely without complaints.

Sinoway said there have been a number of potential violations of the court's order, including some helicopter flights below 500 feet and allegations of the destruction of water tanks and other personal property by CAMP raiders.

Some of the matters, if they cannot be settled informally by Sinoway and the attorney general's office, may be argued before Kongsgaard in the first arbitration hearing Saturday in Garberville.

Still, Sinoway said he is encouraged by a "remarkable change in attitude" on the part of CAMP. In the past, he accused CAMP of conducting warrantless searches, buzzing farmhouses with helicopters, shooting a dog and destroying private property.

"Compared to the three previous years, this is not the same program," the lawyer said. "The leadership is trying to inculcate a respect for civil rights that was not there before."

However, while complaints are down, confiscations are not.

Jack Beecham, CAMP commander in Sacramento, said that in its first six weeks this year, the program seized 86,389 plants weighing 314,668 pounds. That is about 7,000 to 8,000 plants behind last year's pace, he said.

'Emerald Triangle'

Burkhart said authorities will probably be able to seize 40% of the crop in Humboldt County, one of three that make up the heavily planted "Emerald Triangle" in mountainous northwestern California.

Despite the large haul, authorities said fewer plants are being cultivated. Beecham said the area planted with marijuana has fallen to about 400,000 acres in the state from a 1983 peak of 1.5 million acres.

"Back then, it was a high-profit, low-risk criminal operation," he said. "But now there is risk--there's us--and fewer people are willing to risk their stake cultivating plants that might be confiscated."

Beecham speculated that many of those who have dropped out were "marginal" growers--"people who lived in the area and did not grow any, but saw there were no consequences for others who did and so decided to get in on it."

Others have taken to growing plants indoors, he acknowledged, but that means that they are likely to be growing much less of it--and at a much higher cost.

He added that 63 people have been arrested so far, but arrests are not a big objective. Convictions are tough to obtain, CAMP personnel said, because of the difficulty in proving that a particular person is responsible for a "guerrilla garden" on timber company land or in public parks.

Raiders, who began their work last month and will continue through October, said they are satisfied with being able to destroy marijuana by the ton at the source rather than confiscate it by the ounce after it has hit the street.

"At home, they're issuing all kinds of warrants looking for that big score, that 'Moby Dick,' " said Bob Gallardo, a special agent with the state Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement and a regional operations commander with CAMP.

"Up here, it's 'Moby Dick' every day."

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