FORT BRAGG 4/19/20 — Federal Judge Saundra Brown Armstrong has thrown out a case brought against Mendocino County and members of the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) by Andres Rondon, a legal cannabis grower whose operation was named Skunkworx. The case was filed over a Oct. 21, 2018 raid at Rondon’s farm on Pine Avenue in Potter Valley. He no longer is farming cannabis there. (See our previous coverage here. And a letter from Rondon here.)
The judge dismissed the case on the legal doctrine of “res judicata” meaning a case can’t be tried twice on the same set of facts in different courts. The case had already been tried in state court and also heard in state appeals court and thus could not be brought again in federal court, she ruled.
A Mendocino County Superior Court judge (the state court) threw the first case out based on the fact that law enforcement officers have qualified immunity when acting in the scope of their jobs, even if acting on bad information. Qualified immunity has become an issue nationally as a national debate unfolds on legal protections for police officers sparked by the 2020 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. New Mexico acted earlier this month to eliminate qualified immunity.
New Mexico became the third state to eliminate qualified immunity.
When Rondon was barred from seeking compensation for his losses in state court by legal immunity for the officers, he sued in federal court, where the claim has been barred by the fact the case has already been argued.
The focus on legal technicalities like qualified immunity and res judicata has disappointed Rondon, who hoped to have his “day in court” to show his product was legal and was misappropriated from him.
He said he has never had that day to argue liability and legality for the raid and his history as a ground breaking member of the local cannabis community. He was never arrested in connection with the case. The crop was destroyed by a chipper. The Mendocino Voice obtained confirmed evidence that Rondon had permits and a state license to grow at the site. Deputies claimed they did not find any evidence of a legal grow when they searched before the raid. There were allegations made that numbers may have been reversed in the address of the property during the process of searching for the permit and licenses.
Rondon’s attorney, Arthur Angel, declined to comment on the verdict. He said he was not planning to appeal. Rondon said he planned to respond with another letter to the editor of the Mendocino Voice.
Angel had argued that one plaintiff was new (Skunkworx) in the federal case and that the case touched on civil rights not available for redress in state court. The judge addressed those arguments in great detail and ruled against Rondon’s case and entirely in favor of the county’s arguments.
Christian Curtis, Mendocino County Counsel, and the county’s attorney on the case, had made two arguments, res judicata and also that the federal court could not compensate someone for a federally illegal product, no matter the facts of the case. Armstrong said the failure of the case on res judicata made it unnecessary to get to the more interesting charge of whether a marijuana grower can sue for damages in a federal court. The ruling was handed down March 31, without leave to amend. The ruling said nothing about who would pay court costs.
I’m disappointed to see that there was no recourse in this case. The police were wrong and violated his rights. California needs to get rid of qualified immunity. Qualified immunity doesn’t extend however to the county or city who employs police- in fact qualified immunity is the reason taxpayers usually have to pick up the tab for police wrongdoing. That needs to change. The bias here is an endless loop where no one is held accountable for wrongdoing. Unacceptable. We pay all of them.