County Targets Landlords for Illegal Pot Grows

An illegal pot grow by a tenant at landlord Monique Yang’s property in Porterville. Photo courtesy County of Tulare.
An illegal pot grow by a tenant at landlord Monique Yang’s property in Porterville. Photo courtesy County of Tulare.

Tulare County Supervisors came out with swords drawn during their May 13th meeting. At issue was the imposition of a fine on a Porterville landlord, Monique Yang, for 150 pot plants cultivated on her property by her tenants last September.

On September 10, 2013, Yang received a “10-day notice to abate ordinance code violations” from the Tulare County Resource Management Agency (RMA). The code violations were, “Construction of a fence over six feet tall, Medical Marijuana cultivation in an unenclosed facility and Medical Marijuana cultivation in the R-1 Zone.” (R-1 is residential and medical marijuana can only be grown in property zoned commercial.)

The letter also informed Yang that she had ten days to bring her property into compliance with Tulare County’s code. But within 24 hours, the county deemed the site as an “imminent threat.” The RMA went to the property and eradicated the plants and then levied a $1724.91 fine on Yang for the clean-up and the cost of issuing the warrant. The site was considered an imminent threat because of the amount of marijuana and the fact that the tenant had started drying the plants, preparing them for consumption.

No attempt was made to collect the fine from those responsible for planting the marijuana. Landlords are expected to recover their costs themselves by taking the tenants to court if need be. Yang appealed the RMA’s fine out of principle because she felt that the county was punishing innocent landlords. She based her case on the fact she was not responsible for the pot garden, wasn’t aware of its existence, and when she was informed of it she was not given her ten days to rectify the situation.

Also, a point of contentionthat was never resolved was how a small-time landlord is supposed to dig up 150 pot plants – without getting shot – and their proper method of disposal. A public hearing was scheduled for April 29th.

At the April 29th hearing, after Yang and the RMA testified, the supervisors went into closed session for ten minutes to deliberate.  It seemed from her testimony and the questions asked that the supervisors might waive the fine, but to Yang’s and the public’s shock, the supervisors took a very aggressive stance. Their frustrations with the marijuana problem in Tulare County were, it seemed, to be projected on to the landlord. They also seemed openly hostile to the fact that she was challenging the fine.

I have no patience and no tolerance for people who grow pot illegally.

Supervisor Mike Ennis

Monique Yang’s property, as seen from the road. Photo courtesy County of Tulare.
Monique Yang’s property, as seen from the road. Photo courtesy County of Tulare.

All four supervisors present, with Worthley absent on county business, wanted to delay their decision for two weeks to give the staff time to explore the possibility of imposing the maximum amount of fines. The maximum fine the supervisors wanted to impose was $1,000 a day from the time the county became aware of the plants and a fine for the fence. Supervisor Mike Ennis went so far as to inquire if they could impose a fine of $1,000 a plant–$150,000–that would have surely left Yang’s family bankrupt. By the end of the hearing, our law-abiding hardworking mother of four was facing over $10,000 in fines. The final decision was scheduled to be announced at the supervisor’s meeting on May 13th.

The same problems are brewing in Fresno County. In several cases, landlords have been held responsible for illegal marijuana gardens and fined exorbitant fees. Last summer, a landlord in Kerman notified the sheriff’s office that his tenant was cultivating a cannabis patch on his property. The sheriff’s department confronted the tenant, who subsequently removed the plants. In January, sheriff’s deputies determined that the tenant had simply moved his marijuana garden inside the garage. The sheriff returned in February and removed the plants. Fresno County Supervisors levied a $30,000 fine to be split between the medical marijuana-growing tenant and the home’s absentee owner, a resident of the Bay Area. The land owner appealed the decision and the supervisors voted that the tenant was responsible for 90% of the financial penalties — $27,000. The property owner will face $3,000 in penalties.

The fine in Fresno County for an illegal medical marijuana garden is $1,000 per plant. But to the chagrin of Supervisor Ennis, Tulare County had the foresight to know they could not enforce a $1,000-a-plant fine without incurring litigation for exorbitant fees. It was amended it to $1,000 a day.

When the plants were harvested and hung out to dry, that became a huge public safety problem.

Supervisor Allen Ishida

At the Tulare County Supervisors meeting on May 13th, supervisors voted 5-0 for the more lenient fine of $1724.91, but that was more than the landlord felt was fair. Why they voted for the smaller amount is a mystery because the supervisors made it clear they felt the landlord was at fault and should be made an example of. Supervisor Allen Ishida and Supervisor Ennis, whose districts feel the brunt of the crime wave attracted to illegal marijuana gardens, were visibly angry at Yang during their comment period. Ishida said the reason for his concern was public safety.

The first homicide that happened at a medical marijuana grow site in Tulare County was only a half-mile from his house. Referring to Yang’s rental, Ishida said, “When the plants were harvested and hung to dry that became a huge public safety problem.” He said that if the supervisors had the power to seize personal property where marijuana is grown they would. Then the landlord would think the $10,000 fine is cheap compared to what they could, potentially, take.

Ennis was equally angry, saying that Tulare County has a lot of landlords from Los Angeles who get the letter from the RMA and come down and clean it up. Ennis continued that he doesn’t think any of the cannabis being cultivated is for medical purposes but “just to pad the grower’s pockets.” He continued, “I have no patience and no tolerance for people who grow pot illegally.”

Supervisor Steve Worthley mentioned that Fresno has it harder because the tenants move the plants indoors, making it very difficult to detect a marijuana garden. But in Tulare County it’s not very hard to detect. An eight-foot-tall fence is built for one purpose, and one purpose only, to grow pot.

In an unexpected twist, the landlord introduced one of the tenants responsible for growing the marijuana garden. After she made her final statement, she brought him up to the lectern. Ishida, looking like he wanted to jump out of his chair and tackle the man, shot a hostile look and only managed to ask, “This is the man who planted the pot?”

When it was time to move to the next item, Supervisor Phil Cox told the tenant that he was truly lucky he was not leaving their chambers in handcuffs. The tenant, who only speaks Lao, looked around obliviously, then exited the room.

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