Hey, San Luis Obispo County. You’re about to buy 43 dead marijuana plants. Rather than go to trial in federal court and fight a civil rights lawsuit brought by Los Osos resident Richard Steenken, the county and Sheriff’s Department agreed to settle the case for $25,000, roughly the cash value of Steenken’s marijuana plants, which were seized in a botched drug raid on a medical marijuana card holder.
“I guess it could have been more,” Steenken said of the settlement. “But it’s a long time coming.”
Steenken, a 45-year-old addiction specialist, was arrested on Oct. 15, 2008, and two days later charged with a felony for cultivating marijuana and possessing concentrated cannabis (among other charges). With a $40,000 bail set, Steenken opted to stay in jail, where he remained until Nov. 3 when the District Attorney’s Office dismissed all charges. The judge abided, Steenken was released, and he then fought to have his property returned; it eventually was, after a court order. By the time Steenken reclaimed his property, his 43 plants—which he was allowed to cultivate under state law as a medical marijuana patient—had died.
“Basically they told us, ‘We’re going to enforce federal law,’” said Steenken’s attorney, Dana Rosenburg, who specializes in police misconduct cases. “So they’re using state money … to enforce federal law, and that’s unconstitutional.”
Steenken came home in the middle of the raid and found armed deputies at his home. They raided the home of his then-girlfriend three hours later.
On Nov. 9, 2009, Steenken filed a complaint with the United States District Court, Central District of California, with 257 claims including emotional distress, battery, false arrest, and violations of his First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
“The county really is getting off easy here, because we’re settling only for the value of marijuana,” Rosenburg said.
SLO County supervisors gave authority to settle the case on Oct. 5, County Counsel Warren Jensen said. Though a verbal agreement was reached to settle the case for $25,000, the paperwork had not been finalized as of press time. Jensen declined to comment on the case because the settlement had not been finalized, but said the county typically doesn’t admit liability in such settlements. Sheriff’s Department spokesman Rob Bryn declined to comment and deferred to the county.
As for Steenken, he said the settlement doesn’t completely offset the legal fees he’s incurred, but “it lets people know that what they did was incorrect.”