On a hot summer day in 2014, 73-year-old Nina Faye Sikes and her husband, Elvin Sikes, 77, poured some ice water and stepped outside to relax near their backyard garden.
Elvin Sikes was a former long-haul trucker and a lawful medical marijuana patient in California. In 2005, he had surgery for throat cancer. He could talk only when inserting his index finger into a tracheotomy hole to stimulate what was left of his vocal cords.
'Look, there’s plants over there!' one of the officers shouted shortly before the team swarmed the elderly couple’s yard.
Nina Faye, a certified nursing assistant, was his caregiver. She brewed cannabis teas to help Elvin sleep and to relieve his entrenched back pain, which he earned by working long hours as a trucker until the age of 75.
They grew their own medicine in their backyard garden, a cultivation of some two dozen cannabis plants.
Neighborhood medicinal gardens had long thrived in Lake County, a region of 65,000 residents situated north of San Francisco, bordering the renowned wine counties of Sonoma and Napa and the legendary cannabis county of Mendocino.
But on August 1, 2014, an armed narcotics task force decided that the Sikes’ backyard cultivation represented an immediate threat to the health, safety and welfare of the citizens of Lake County.
And so a squad of sheriff’s deputies in battle fatigues, accompanied by a state Fish and Wildlife agent and a local code enforcement officer, entered Elvin and Nina Faye’s backyard from a nearby property they were raiding. They possessed neither a criminal warrant nor a county civil abatement notice.
More than 100 warrantless raids, mostly on small medicinal gardens, were carried out in Lake County in 2014. Thirty occurred on August 1 alone.
“Look, there’s plants over there!” one of the officers shouted shortly before the team swarmed the couple’s yard.
Elvin rose from his chair and edged his finger into his throat. “What are they doing?” he asked.
“Elvin, you’ve got to sit down,” Nina Faye said. She turned to the officers. Their guns were holstered. But the deputies brandished large loppers, and a code enforcement agent had a machete.
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“You guys are illegal,” one of the officers told the Sikes.
“How?” Nina asked. “We have a medical recommendation.”
She pressed further: “Do you guys have a warrant?”
“We don’t need one,” came the answer.
The narcotics task force then began destroying the elderly couple’s garden.
Gardens Ransacked Countywide
All day long, the scene repeated in backyard gardens in Lake County.
At his home off Spring Valley Road, Jon Holt, a real estate photographer and special education classroom assistant, watched a phalanx of law enforcement vehicles lurch into his cul-de-sac.
Holt used cannabis to ease pain from muscle spasms from injuries sustained in a car accident as a child, in addition to back surgeries he had later in life. He first planted his garden after hearing assurances from the Sheriff’s Department at a 2011 community meeting that “they weren’t out for mom and pop grows or medicinal gardens.”
In the mid-summer of 2014, Holt, then 51, had 15 yet-to-flower cannabis plants in a backyard garden that also included watermelons, zucchini, tomatoes, corn, cucumbers and peppers.
Jon Holt had medical cannabis plants growing next to tomatoes, zucchini, watermelons, and corn. The deputies arrived wearing tactical gear.
He didn’t see his cultivation as the sort of community menace that would require such a police response. As he opened his front door, he saw officers already in tactical formation.
“They weren’t openly brandishing firearms, but everyone I could see was strapped,” Holt said. “There was a guy flanking me on the left side of the front door and another one on the right. There was a half-dozen in what I would call an assault formation in front yard, in battle gear.
“It was an obvious move to intimidate.”
Just as Nina Fay Sikes had done earlier in the day, Holt asked for a warrant, getting the same answer: We don’t need one.
“Isn’t that a violation of the constitution?” he asked.
He said some officers laughed.
And that made Holt furious.
He grabbed his camera and began photographing the destruction of his garden. (Those are Holt’s photos, above and below.)In the eyes of the Lake County Sheriff’s Department, their officers were doing nothing more than enforcing the law.
In August 2014, California was suffering through yet another month of a seemingly endless drought. Gov. Jerry Brown had recently declared a statewide drought emergency, ordering extreme water conservation measures. The lack of rain was acutely felt in Lake County. The local Indian Valley reservoir, which provided water to the Spring Valley community, had dwindled to three percent of its capacity.
Moreover, two months earlier voters in Lake County had narrowly passed a local cultivation ordinance, Measure N. It banned outdoor cannabis gardens on lots smaller than one acre and restricted medicinal growing to 12 immature plants or six mature plants on larger properties. The Sikes and many of their neighbors’ gardens were technically out of compliance, with their cultivations having been planted before Measure N’s passage.
Spurred by the passage of the local initiative, Lake County law enforcement officials moved drought enforcement and plant abatement to the top of their priority list. More than 100 warrantless raids, mostly on small medicinal gardens, were carried out in the summer of 2014. Thirty occurred on August 1 alone.
Jon Holt Stands Up
In the days after the August 1 raids, Jon Holt became the loudest, angriest voice in rallying neighbors to challenge the county raids.
Decrying “a vicious and egregious attack on my liberty,” he fired off letters to then-Sheriff Francisco Rivero and the Board of Supervisors.
'My intentions had nothing to do with a lawsuit. I wanted these bastards put in jail.'
He wrote the California attorney general and medical cannabis advocacy groups including the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
“A recently passed land use ordinance in Lake County, intended to regulate the cultivation of medical cannabis,” he wrote, “is being used as an excuse to allow squads of armed men to enter private property though the force of intimidation, without warrant, warning or even the appearance of due process.”
Said Holt recently: “My intentions had nothing to do with a lawsuit – I wanted these bastards put in jail.”
A Gathering of Outraged Citizens
The California chapter of NORML alerted Joe Elford, a Yale-educated lawyer specializing in cannabis law. With Holt’s help, Elford convened a late-summer meeting at a Lake County community center with neighbors targeted in the warrantless raids.
“I saw a very large group of people, 80 to 100, with fear in their eyes,” Elford said.
Among those in the group was Carl Ray Harris, a tall, grey-bearded former star defensive back at Fresno State University who earned a tryout with the Dallas Cowboys in the 1970s. Harris went on to work 35 years as a blackjack dealer and pit boss for casinos in Las Vegas and Reno.
A friend alerted Carl Ray Harris: 'It's a good thing you're not home because they've got their guns out.'
He settled in Lake County to savor retirement as a local fishing guide. He got a medical marijuana recommendation for intractable pain from old football injuries, including a cracked hip and fractured vertebrae. He also had glaucoma.
Harris was at the doctor’s office when the narcotics task force arrived Aug. 1 at his home in Clearlake Oaks. His suburban house bordered state Highway 20, where directly across the road, vast wine vineyards leafed high into the foothills.
But officers were at his property to tear down his six water-wasting marijuana plants. A friend who had dropped by Harris’ home saw task force members scale his fence as other members of the team drew their weapons. The narcotics unit then cut a lock and broke an interior gate to get to his garden.
Harris was one of the few African-Americans living in Lake County. He felt a chill when his friend called to alert him about the unfolding raid.
“He said, ‘It’s a good thing you’re not home because they’ve got their guns out,’” Harris, now 69, recalled recently.
“I couldn’t understand. What were they going to do? Shoot the plants? If I had been home and had heard someone climbing my fence I might have grabbed my duck hunting gun and they would have shot me.”
First Step: Injunction to Stop Raids
Despite Holt’s call to lock up the cops, Elford urged residents to take the more plausible legal step of seeking an injunction to stop the raids.
And even though cannabis remains federally illegal, a federal judge agreed. In October, 2014, federal judge Thelton E. Henderson signed an emergency injunction barring Lake County authorities from conducting additional raids on local medical marijuana growers without warrants or county abatement notices.
Henderson took note of the severe drought conditions. But he was troubled by the fact that in Lake County only “water used for medical marijuana cultivation” was deemed “an immediate threat to health, safety, and welfare of public” meriting such heavy-handed enforcement tactics.
“The protection of constitutional rights and the guarantee of access to state-recognized medicine tilts the scales in favor of (the) plaintiffs,” the judge wrote in authorizing an injunction to halt the raids.
Second Step: Civil Lawsuit
After Henderson issued the protective order, Elford pressed on with a civil lawsuit seeking financial damages, believing that if the county paid out anything it would be admitting wrongdoing.
He carefully selected a group of 10 citizens – including Jon Holt, Elvin and Nina Faye Sikes, and a total of six plaintiffs aged 61 and over –to press on with a lawsuit in Henderson’s United States District Court, where, again, all cannabis was considered illegal.
Then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris, now California’s junior U.S. Senator, filed a brief supporting Lake County’s case. Her office argued that the local growers weren’t entitled to relief for any financial damages in the raids.
'This demonstrates that law enforcement officers are not themselves above the law.'
“The plaintiffs in this action have few, if any recoverable special damages: no medical expenses, no legal expenses, and no lost income,” wrote Harris and Deputy Attorney General Grayson Marshall III. “Moreover, it is dubious whether plaintiffs can recover any amount for their lost medicine in this action: Under federal law, marijuana is contraband.”
Despite federal marijuana prohibition, and the county’s contention that the warrantless raids were justified by the water emergency and the gardens’ “exigent” threat to public safety, the residents argued that they were entitled to protection from unreasonable search and seizure under the 4th Amendment of the Constitution.
After nearly three years of litigation, Lake County recently agreed to pay the plaintiffs $250,000 in order to settle the case. They money isn’t much; after legal fees, it amounts to $10,000 per plaintiff. But the settlement, approved by Judge Henderson, affirmed a broader legal principle: Medical marijuana patients could seek redress in federal court over unconstitutional actions by police.
“This demonstrates that law enforcement officers are not themselves above the law,” Elford said. “It affirms the legal teeth of the 4th Amendment, which was repeatedly ignored by Lake County’s narcotics enforcement team.”
Lake County’s decision to settle also appeared to affirm something else: the power of 10 underdog, determined and pissed off medicinal growers.
“I think this is quite fascinating,” said Michael Vitiello, a professor at University of Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law who specializes in criminal law and cannabis issues. “It may well be that the local government realized that they didn’t have a very sympathetic case: If you take pot away from elderly patients, a jury may want to poke a stick at the sheriff.
“This may not have been a huge settlement, but it has a good deal of symbolic value.”
Settle, or Take it to Trial?
Elvin Sikes died of throat cancer in 2016, a year before the county and the Lake County 10 arrived at a settlement in the legal action. At the time of his death, Elvin had returned to cultivating – with a modest five backyard plants.
Some of the plaintiffs, notably Harris and Holt, were eager to push on with the lawsuit, hoping to force Lake County authorities to face the spectacle of a jury trial over the raids.
'If they had listened to my ass, we would have gotten $100,000 apiece. We wanted to hold out.
“If they had listened to my ass, we would have gotten $100,000 apiece,” Harris mused. “We wanted to hold out.”
But Nina Faye Harris suffered a broken hip, and some other elderly defendants became exhausted from traveling to San Francisco for depositions and court hearings. By the spring of 2017, Lake County also wanted to rid itself of the suit. A tentative settlement was reached in May; Judge Henderson approved the final terms in mid-August.
Besides the cash settlement, Lake County authorities agreed that they wouldn’t intrude onto properties of local cannabis growers without a warrant, code enforcement notice or a certified public safety emergency. The county also agreed that, for the next five years, authorities lacking warrants wouldn’t enter cannabis gardens without residents’ consent – in writing. Elford characterized the last concession as extraordinary, going beyond standard 4th amendment protections.
Lake County Sheriff Brian Martin, who took office in 2015 and wasn’t involved in the raids, told The Santa Rosa Press Democrat newspaper: “The policy we have doesn’t do anything more than ensures the public that we respect their constitutional rights.”
Martin, whose office declined a recent request for comment, added: “It’s not an imposition…It’s a reminder that’s consistent with our core values.”
Nina Faye Sikes is happy with the outcome.
“I think they acknowledged that they were wrong and they did wrong,” she said recently as she displayed on her kitchen table photographs of Elvin, her husband of 53 years. “The officers up here needed to learn you can’t treat people like that.
Settlement and Aftermath
These days, Carl Ray Harris’ garden – with naked planting beds from 2014 still visible – is strewn with weeds. Friends provide him with medicine. He won’t take a chance on growing again.
“I thought this win was reasonable,” Carl Ray said of the legal resolution. “I know it’s going down in the archives as one of the first times people have taken law enforcement to court over marijuana and won a settlement.”
Harris used his $10,000 settlement to catch up on unpaid bills. The biggest, he says, was his property tax tab from Lake County.
“Tell them I just paid my taxes with marijuana money,” he said, smiling broadly. “Damn right.”