An elderly couple settled a civil lawsuit with the County after police raided their home, suspected of growing marijuana. Let’s review the details of the incident with Ehline Law and our elder abuse attorneys.
The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department conducts routine busts to seize narcotics and illegal drugs in the County based on intel. One such incident based on a home energy audit occurred in 2021, costing the Sheriff’s department hundreds of thousands of dollars.
On August 5, 2021, the Sheriff’s deputies conducted one of their routine busts in a quiet neighborhood, Lake Elsinore. The department became suspicious of the low power consumption at two homes at Lake Elsinore, and the deputies believed that the homeowners could be stealing power and growing marijuana.
A local newspaper stated that the officers raided a home where nobody was. After conducting a thorough investigation and finding nothing, they turned to the second home on their list, owned by the same couple, 67-year-old Hwang and her 75-year-old husband, Wu.
When the police officers raided the second home, Hwang was home alone. They rummaged through all their belongings while Hwang talked to Sgt. Olguin on the phone. During the call, Hwang realized that the officers were violating her personal space by not having a warrant, making the search illegal.
Soon after the incident, The Press-Enterprise reported that Hwang teamed up with an attorney, Alex Coolman, and filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Sheriff’s department for an illegal search, a violation of the Fourth Amendment.
According to the lawsuit filed, the deputies broke through the doors of the first home with a battering ram.
It stated that after finding nothing, the officers broke through multiple entries of the second home where Hwang was residing and started conducting their illegal warrantless search.
The documents detailed the events as follows. The officers mentioned to the homeowner that they had already conducted a raid on their first home under suspicion of growing marijuana due to low power consumption.
Seeing the uniformed deputies, Hwang felt terrified, and because of their outfits, she believed they were soldiers. She talked to Sgt. Olguin on the phone who confessed that the search was illegal.
According to Hwang’s attorney, Coolman, neither raid found evidence of the crime during the operation.
The only intel they had on the elderly couple was their suspiciously low electricity bill, which the law enforcement believed to be linked with growing cannabis.
The attorney stated that upon their investigation, they found that the officers conducted multiple raids in the area, with the police operating on a similar assumption that they were stealing power to grow marijuana.
However, the search at Hwang’s property was the only raid without a warrant and no justification. He further explained the low electricity bill, stating that the couple was thrifty and had installed solar panels, helping them save on the electric bill.
Coolman believed the raid was unreasonable and that no one should go through such a situation based on their electric bills.
After the federal civil rights lawsuit, the County and the other officers involved in the alleged raid decided to settle rather than go to court. Hwang received a settlement of $136,000 on August 15, 2022.
Under the United States Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, without legitimate probable cause, the basis of the warrant is undermined.
Perhaps the couple was not using air conditioning, a water heater to convert cold water into hot water, or an HVAC system, or they could be using insulation to keep the cold air inside the house and save on cooling costs.
In the story of “elderly couple’s low electric bill earned them a battering ram to the door,” the suit was straightforward without any complications. The Sheriff’s department understood they did not have the warrant and their search was unreasonable, so they settled.
Let’s look at an example to help you understand how the constitution protects a homeowner from unreasonable searches.
Police officers suspect the defendant is carrying out mail fraud, a federal crime, and believe the evidence is available on their laptop. The police arrange for a warrant and enter the home upon receiving it. They search the laptop and find the evidence which makes the defendant guilty of the crime.
It may seem like an open-shut case, but there are a few questions that one needs to ask. Firstly, why did the police decide to get a search warrant?
To get a warrant, a police officer must provide an affidavit to a judge informing them of their suspicion and convincing them that they believe the evidence will show up in the search. The judge will only provide the warrant if they believe the supporting facts back the officer’s suspicions. There must be legitimate probable cause for the warrant.
Another critical thing about warrants is that they must be specific. Under the Fourth Amendment, the warrant must clearly describe what the law enforcement officers wish to search. Returning to our mail fraud example, did the police have a search warrant specific to the laptop they searched?
In some situations, the evidence could be “in plain sight,” for which the police do not need a warrant. Law enforcement officers also do not require a search warrant if they believe that the public is in danger or the likelihood of evidence getting destroyed.
The abovementioned requirements and exceptions clearly show the officers’ reasonable search requirements. Failing to follow the requirements can lead to severe consequences for the prosecution.
If you suffered physical injuries or emotional trauma from having your civil rights violated, contact us at (833) LETS-SUE for a free consultation on your case with a top-rated civil rights lawyer with testicles, as you may be eligible for compensation.
Michael is a managing partner at the nationwide Ehline Law Firm, Personal Injury Attorneys, APLC. He’s an inactive Marine and became a lawyer in the California State Bar Law Office Study Program, later receiving his J.D. from UWLA School of Law. Michael has won some of the world’s largest motorcycle accident settlements.