Sheriff's office sued over seized pot plants

Steve Garrison
A flower nearly ready for harvest sits atop a mature marijuana plant at a marijuana growing facility in Arlington, Wash., on Jan. 13.

AZTEC — A local man is demanding the San Juan County Sheriff's Office reimburse him for dozens of marijuana plants seized from his property during a raid in May 2014.

Gilbert Oldfield claims in a lawsuit filed in district court on Dec. 1 that a sheriff's office deputy unlawfully seized 43 marijuana plants last year from his residence on County Road 3950.

The deputy, Nima Babadi, seized the marijuana plants, despite knowing Oldfield possessed a New Mexico marijuana grower's license, according to the complaint.

Babadi was acting on behalf of the Region II Narcotics Taskforce when he searched the residence, the complaint states, and allegedly made false claims in seeking the court's approval for the warrant.

Oldfield, 58, is demanding the sheriff's office pay him $51,861.60 for the marijuana plants, as well as unspecified punitive damages.

San Juan County Attorney Doug Echols said his office has not yet been provided a copy of the complaint, so he could not comment on its merits.

San Juan County Sheriff Ken Christesen said in a statement: "Not all of the facts of this case are out yet, and we are not in the business of giving drugs back to people."

Oldfield's attorney, Christian Hatfield, said the decision by deputies to seize lawfully grown marijuana could have a chilling effect on the fledgling medical marijuana industry.

"It begs the question: Who is really trying to comply with the laws of New Mexico, and who isn't?" Hatfield said.

Agents from the Region II Narcotics Taskforce served the warrant at Oldfield's residence on May 21, 2014, after a deputy spotted numerous marijuana plants growing in Oldfield's backyard, according to an arrest warrant affidavit.

The agents seized 43 marijuana plants, as well as marijuana seeds, digital scales and drug paraphernalia, the affidavit states.

Oldfield was initially charged with felony marijuana possession, but the San Juan County District Attorney's Office allowed him to plead guilty in August 2014 to a misdemeanor offense after prosecutors learned Oldfield was licensed to grow up to 16 marijuana plants by the New Mexico Department of Health.

Oldfield appealed the misdemeanor conviction, and District Judge Sandra Price overturned it on June 5.

The Daily Times reported in February that the Region II Narcotics Taskforce seized more than six times as much marijuana in 2014 as in 2013, in large part due to the arrest of Oldfield and a second man, Joseph Hamilton.

Hamilton, 26, pleaded no contest in November to marijuana distribution, a fourth-degree felony, and was sentenced to 18 months of supervised probation.

A photocopy of Oldfield's marijuana grower's license is included as an affidavit in his lawsuit. It states the permit was obtained on April 24, 2013, and expired on April 29, 2015. However, the New Mexico Department of Health suspended Oldfield's license in September 2014 as a result of his arrest, according to court records.

Hatfield conceded on Monday that Oldfield was only allowed to grow 16 marijuana plants but said having more plants than allowed was a regulatory violation, not a criminal felony.

Hatfield said Oldfield's lawsuit seeking reimbursement for wrongfully seized marijuana could be unprecedented.

"Given the fact that marijuana medical statutes are pretty recent, I am guessing there is not much precedent, but it's analogous to other forms of civil theft," Hatfield said.

Steve Garrison covers crime and courts for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644.