Something was off.
One day last year, Sheriff's Deputy Mark Peterson was patrolling Ettersburg, an area in Southern Humboldt, when he noticed a newly constructed driveway. An unmarked metal livestock gate sat open a few yards from the road. Peterson plugged his GPS coordinates into the computer in his squad car and checked out the property on Google Earth. He called the Humboldt County Assessor's office and realized the neighboring address was not "1640," as it read when he drove by just minutes earlier, but 1460. The foot of the gravel path he stared at: 1470 Blue Slide Creek Rd.
So it began.
Before police can enter someone's home or business without permission, they need a search warrant signed by a judge. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects our privacy and property against "unreasonable" search and seizure. It doesn't say police need a warrant; it only requires that "no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause." Over time, legislatures and the courts turned this skimpy phrasing into a complex process police must follow.
And it works, according to District Attorney Chief Investigator Mike Hislop. "The law is in place to protect people from unlawful search and seizure so that they are not abused by the government," Hislop told us recently.
We wanted to see how often police execute search warrants in Humboldt County and for what purpose, so back in January we requested the latest search warrant filed in the county courthouse. It told how special agents from the Humboldt County Drug Task Force watched a text message come through on a phone they found while searching an apartment near HSU. It read: "Yo bro I need your address again trying to get that out." Officers texted back the address of the Arcata Police Department. The next day a package arrived at the station, and they got a search warrant to open and seize the money they found inside.
That warrant whetted our appetite, so we filed a request for every search warrant filed last year. We were given access to about 300 warrants. Not all were issued for residences. Many were for PG&E records, cars, phone records, bank accounts and even Internet accounts. Some read like movie scripts: There was a case involving a MySpace page created by a suspected dog-murderer who then sent a friend request to the owner of the dog -- his ex-girlfriend. In another, police requested a search warrant for AT&T phone records after a subscriber made 58 prank calls to Humboldt County 911. And another: A woman told 911 she had shot a man and needed medical attention because her eye was popped out of her head. There was a high speed car chase on 299, an undercover stakeout in Rio Dell, a skeleton found in an abandoned house in Loleta, eight marijuana plants found in a dorm room at HSU and a marijuana grow in McKinleyville discovered when an informant told police he found a trash heap filled with bear hides.
They involved all kinds of people and all kinds of crimes, from the full-time college student who grows pot in his apartment to help pay his way through school to the 60-year-old man who impersonated a woman on the phone to his insurance company before being investigated for the disappearance of his wife.
There were some interesting geographic clusters as well. In Sunny Brae, for example, police executed 15 search warrants, more than half on Beverly Drive.
We found that police manage to get search warrants easily, and once they begin searching they do so extensively. A few patterns emerged:
Seizures generate a substantial amount of money for law enforcement.
Most often police searched for marijuana and found relatively small grows.
Many searches start when neighbors or acquaintances tip off police.
There were many questions we couldn't answer. We couldn't find out how much it costs to send teams of heavily armed officers to execute the search warrants. Bill Love of the Humboldt County Auditor's office said that finding a simple dollar amount is difficult, since there are so many different police agencies that conduct searches. We also couldn't determine how many searches lead to convictions, acquittals or dismissals. In part this is because we chose to look through fairly recent warrants and many of the cases are still working their way through the courts; in part it is because the District Attorney's Office said it didn't get the public records request we sent through the U.S. mail. Finally, few people named in the warrants agreed to speak to us for this project, and their accounts might differ from the stories we read.
Each search warrant contains a story. It explains to the judge why the law enforcement officer, called an "affiant," suspects to find evidence of a crime at a particular location. It might also include a return, which lists anything seized. It might be as short as 10 pages long or a thick stack; one contained a year's worth of phone records.
To sign it, a judge needs to know why police suspect criminal activity before she signs a search warrant. That's the probable cause. We found it generally fell under one of three categories: Links to previous or ongoing crimes, police observation or tips from informants.
Police rely on citizen informants in Eureka under a popular police program called Problem Oriented Policing. Police Chief Garr Nielsen said it focuses on high-priority crimes like drug houses, gang havens and ongoing nuisances. "It places an emphasis on utilizing community members to identify and solve problems," he said. "If we did it any other way it would be a band-aid approach."
In Ettersburg, a neighbor had tipped Peterson about possible marijuana growers on Blue Slide Creek Road. According to the warrant, five days after the day he plugged the coordinates into his GPS he returned with the Humboldt County Drug Task Force. The team found a closed gate some 25 yards up the driveway and explored the area. They smelled marijuana and came upon a pair of pick-up trucks and an abandoned residence. Peterson knocked on the front door but got no answer. He heard a diesel generator in the distance. Down the hill, they found a partially buried wooden structure with nobody inside. Except for the whirring of the generator, all was quiet. Peterson noticed another structure about 75 yards away. As the team neared that building, the marijuana smell grew stronger. At that point they waited for a search warrant.
We don't know who the informant was in Ettersburg, because that portion of the warrant was sealed. Judges often seal portions of search warrants to protect informants' identities. Criminal Defense Attorney Neal Sanders said he routinely challenges that habit, as the sealed information could help the defense in some cases. When an informant is a material witness, said Sanders, courts must unseal the information or throw out the case.
Otherwise, judges and attorneys trust law enforcement's ability to gather information legally. There's even a built-in "oops" factor in case the cops blow it: It's called "the good-faith exception," and Sanders said it means nearly all evidence is permissible as long as police officers acted in good faith to obtain it.
The good-faith exception is an acknowledgement that law enforcement makes mistakes. Eureka Police Department Investigator Ron Prose said that's what happened once when he accompanied a state narcotics team in Redding. They went to house with helmets on, bearing rifles and automatics weapons. Through a window, Prose saw a woman and her daughter. "The lady saw us and started screaming." The police had used an old address and new tenants now lived there. "It scared the piss out of them," said Prose. "I hate to say it, but it was sloppy police work."
Even without a warrant, police can venture onto a property -- as far as a delivery man would be allowed. Anything they see up the walkway to the front door or through a window can be used as probable cause for a warrant.
Sergeant Wayne Hanson of the Humboldt Couty Drug Task Force said it doesn't have to be a lot, but it should be compelling. "I have filed search warrants on smell alone," he said.
Back in Ettersburg, the DTF team waited about seven hours before investigator Tom Cooke arrived with a warrant. The team then searched the living room, master bedroom, kitchen, garage and the two trucks and seized a cell phone, paperwork, marijuana shake, a triple beam scale, bank statements, a laptop computer, a Beretta 9mm handgun and a pair of .22 caliber rifles, with ammunition for both.
The computer fell under the category of "indicia" -- which, said Hanson, is anything that can help identify property ownership. "We examine and search for all documents, computers, we can even answer phone calls," he said. "We always look at PG&E bills to help establish indicia. We may even take a computer to analyze later."
Some of the warrants served last year permitted searches that took place over long periods of time. A methamphetamine investigation in Rio Dell, for example, took place from February to July of 2009, according to the warrant that allowed members of the drug task force to not only tap a phone, but to intercept calls made to it and converse with those who called.
Some warrants involved multiple crimes. That's what happened in a complicated case that began with a late-night theft of diesel fuel from a school in Kneeland. The escape car from that heist crashed into a fence at five that morning, and officers would later connect the driver to a homicide.
Some search warrants asked for only one thing. One included a long statement of probable cause only to request a cashier's check from Chase Bank. But some called for just about anything. One listed a slew of power tools, shop lights, halogen lights, a go cart, even a dart board, all believed stolen.
Police must specify what they seek and where they think they will find it, because of rules laid out in a landmark Supreme Court Case: Chimel v. California.
In 1969, police in Santa Ana arrived at home of Ted Chimel armed only with an arrest warrant on burglary charges. Chimel's wife let them in and they arrested Chimel as he walked in. He refused them permission to search the house, but they did anyway and seized items that lead to his conviction. The Supreme Court said that an arresting officer may only search the arrestee's person and the area within the arrestee's reach.
District Attorney Paul Gallegos believes that search warrants protect the average citizen. "Search warrants are a valuable investigative tool associated with investigation and detection of criminal activity," he said. "I tell my guys to err on the side of getting a warrant. Every search of a residence or property without a warrant is presumed unlawful. They are a creation of the Constitution."
He said the warrant acts as the guide for what police can go after. "If they want to search something else they need to get another warrant for it," he said. "I am a big advocate of search warrants. I believe in them big time." Often, law enforcement will have the District Attorney's Office review a warrant before they take it to a judge. That's what the Humboldt County Drug Task Force does, unless the matter is time-sensitive and evidence could be destroyed.
Police have a judge on call 24 hours a day. Hislop said he has woken up judges at 2 a.m. to review and sign a search warrant. Warrants can even be reviewed and signed via e-mail. The judge represents the most important check against abuse by police of search and seizure powers, yet rarely do they turn down warrant requests.
"In 20 years of doing this I never had one denied," Hislop said. Hanson said that this is because he and his fellow officers won't go to a judge until they have sufficient probable cause. Judge Reinholtsen said the affiant must establish a link between a suspected crime and a location, but the officers who come to him are experienced. "I can think of maybe 10-15 that I can remember handing back to the affiant and telling them to come back with more," he said.
The real action happens during the search itself. If no one is home, or sometimes even when someone is, police might have to bust down the door to get in. Prose said his team goes in prepared. "We use the big battering rams, the small ones meant for one person, a sledgehammer works good too if you do it right," he said. "Sometimes we find open windows."
Once inside, they can search anywhere an item could be reasonably found. To search more extensively they need to amend the warrant. This can be done by phone, said Fortuna Police Lieutenant William Dobberstein. "It takes 10-15 minutes to find a judge and 30-45 minutes to write the secondary search warrant," he said.
In many cases, this leads to computers and other electronic devices -- mp3 players, hard drives, flash drives, cameras, PDA's, and all computer-related items passwords and/or instruction manuals. And cash.
To see how much money police seize we filed a California Public Records Act Request with the County Budget Office. Between July 1, 2006, through the end of 2008, police seized nearly $3 million. It wound up in a special district fund for narcotics-related forfeiture. Last year alone, just over $2 million was seized. Individual deposits ranged from $155 worth of grow lights seized on Oct. 24, 2008, to $155,312 seized on Oct. 5, 2009. The money sits in an interest-earning trust fund, and is kept there until the courts make a determination about the legality of the money.
If police think that someone is mixing illegal income with legal income they can take all money that they suspect may have come from illegal activities as evidence. But if money is found, without other evidence of illegal activity, they are not likely to confiscate it.
If the defendants are found not guilty, they can reclaim their property. John Armenio, chief of evidence for the Arcata Police Department, said that unclaimed non-cash assets, will be transported to Washington State and sold at auction. This is done so that people won't later discover their goods in the hands of other people in Humboldt County. If the defendant is found guilty or if nobody claims the money, 65 percent goes to the Drug Task Force, 24 percent to the state of California, 10 percent to the district attorney's office and 1 percent to the California district attorney's association.>People convicted of crimes that originate from search and seizures might end up contributing more to the county coffers. In Ettersburg, the search that began with Peterson's Google Earth view ultimately lead to the arrest of Carmine Barbati, the owner of 1470 Blue Slide Creek Road. He pleaded guilty three months later to the cultivation of marijuana. He was sentenced to three years probation and ordered to pay a $5,000 fine.
Back in 1604, the sheriff of London, armed with a valid writ, broke down the doors of Peter Semayne's house to search for papers that belonged to George Berisford, who died and left all his belongings to Semayne. Sir Edward Coke, the Attorney General of England at the time, uttered the famous phrase "the house of every one is to him as his castle and fortress, as well for his defense against injury and violence as for his repose."
British law used writs of assistance in order to curb smuggling in the Colonies in the 1750s. Once a writ was written, it lasted as long as the King lived plus six months after his death. These writs gave authorities the right to search anyone and everyone and called on all citizens to assist the authorities. James Otis, the advocate general in the vice admiralty court, sued the English courts, claiming this practice was invalid as it conflicted with the English constitution. Otis lost the case. Later John Adams said of this case: "Then and there the child Independence was born."