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Boulder City takes steps to seize house after woman admits possessing six marijuana plants A Boulder City woman who pleaded no contest to possession of six marijuana plants could lose her house over the case.
Officials in the small town, which prides itself on being the only community in the state that doesn't allow gambling, said their move to seize Cynthia Warren's home is intended to send a message that drugs won't be tolerated in Boulder City.
"In the drug world, this thing is probably nothing," said City Attorney Dave Olsen. "But in a town of 15,000 people where we have one or two children die every year because of controlled substances, it is a big deal to us."
Olsen, who pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor drunken driving charge in 2004, further defended the attempt to take Warren's residence using drug seizure laws, saying police suspected the home was being used for drug dealing.
However, the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada said the attempted seizure is disturbing.
"The police ... get to eat what they kill," said Allen Lichtenstein, an ACLU attorney. "They have an incentive to fund themselves through these seizures, and it can be very disproportionate (to the crime). A misdemeanor, yet a fine that takes away the entire property?"
Warren wouldn't comment, but her attorney, John Lusk, said, "I think in this particular case, whatever the allegations are, they (Boulder City authorities) have overstepped their discretion."
According to Olsen and court records, police served a search warrant at Warren's home in the 700 block of Capri Drive in April amid suspicions marijuana was being manufactured and sold.
According to a search warrant signed by Boulder City Justice of the Peace Victor Miller, police expected to find marijuana plants, methamphetamine, prescriptions for dangerous drugs, paraphernalia, items used for growing and harvesting marijuana, items associated with the sale of drugs, and records of narcotics transactions.
"They found all of that," Olsen said.
Olsen acknowledged that methamphetamine found in the residence actually was methamphetamine residue, however, and that it was believed to belong to a roommate of Warren.
Warren was not charged with possession of methamphetamine. She was charged in Justice Court with two felonies, including manufacturing a controlled substance, and conspiracy to sell and possession of a controlled substance.
In a plea agreement, Warren entered a no contest plea to a misdemeanor charge of possession of a controlled substance not to be introduced into interstate commerce, a misdemeanor.
A no contest plea does not require an admission of guilt, but acknowledges that the case would likely be proven at trial. The courts treat a no contest plea as a guilty plea.
Lusk described his client as a 55-year-old woman who has been on Social Security disability since 1990.
After the plea was entered, Olsen filed a civil action in District Court seeking a judge's permission to seize Warren's home. The 2,000-square-foot house has an assessed taxable value of more than $288,000, according to Clark County records.
Lusk said he believes Warren has more than $300,000 in equity in the home.
The house sticks out among the row of well-kept homes lining the winding Boulder City street. Weeds poked through rocks in the front yard, the stucco was peeling, and a wooden board covered the front window, which was broken when police raided the home.
According to court records, an entity known as the Georgia R. Haynes living trust also has a claim to the property. The trust, represented by local attorney Richard Wright, stated in court filings that it sold the Capri property to Warren in 1997. An agreement was executed in which $82,500 was loaned to Warren via a note secured by a deed of trust for the property.
Wright did not return a telephone call seeking comment for this story.
Olsen said the seizure of property in a case like Warren's is warranted, given the evidence.
"Personally, I think it is something that should only be done in those cases where there is clear and convincing evidence the (drugs in the) house is being used for something more than personal use," Olsen said.
A Boulder City police lieutenant did not return a telephone call seeking comment for this story.
Warren's case is not the first time an attempt to seize property in a drug case has come under scrutiny in Boulder City.
In February 2000, the Review-Journal reported on attempts by Boulder City officials to confiscate a house belonging to Ila Clements-Davey. The house, on Avenue L, was the subject of a seizure attempt after Clements-Davey's son was arrested on drug charges at the residence.
Clements-Davey owned the house but didn't live there at the time of the arrest. A District Court judge rejected the city's bid to take the home.
Lusk said the city was also ordered to pay Clements-Davey's attorney fees in that case, which predates Olsen's hiring.
Veteran Las Vegas attorney Charles Kelly, a former federal prosecutor, said generally speaking state and federal law allows law enforcement agencies to confiscate property or money deemed "proceeds, product or instrumentality of a crime."
He said the practice is becoming more common.
"It's just another tool law enforcement attempts to use to fight crime," Kelly said. "There's the old saying, 'Follow the money.' It should really be, 'Seize the money.' What you seize, you get.
"If (a criminal suspect) makes a million in drug money and plows it into a legitimate business, you can trace the proceeds through there; and once illegal proceeds are commingled with legal proceeds, it contaminates everything," Kelly said.
In a 2000 investigation, the Kansas City Star newspaper uncovered multiple abuses of seizure laws nationwide. Specifically, the newspaper found that state and local law enforcement in several states circumvented their own state laws regarding confiscation of property. They did so by taking their seizure cases through the federal system.
In one case the Kansas City newspaper documented, a North Carolina State Highway Patrol trooper stopped a driver in 1999 for tailgating. A police dog signaled drugs were in the vehicle, and troopers recovered $105,700 and two grams of marijuana. The driver denied owning either the drugs or the money.
The highway patrol gave the money to federal authorities, which returned more than $80,000 to the state patrol, even though North Carolina law generally requires sending seized money to education, according to the newspaper.
District Judge Michael Cherry is scheduled to decide whether Warren's home can be given to the city.
Accusing Boulder City of legalized extortion, the state's American Civil Liberties Union has offered to help a 56-year-old woman convicted of misdemeanor pot possession fight the city's threat to seize her $400,000 home or force her to pay to keep it.
Although Boulder City, which accused Warren of selling marijuana out of her home, filed a lawsuit in April to confiscate her house, it also is discussing a deal that would allow her to keep it for a payment of up to $100,000.
"It would be terribly unfortunate if Boulder City was able to bully someone into paying a fine on a threat of taking their house away from them," said Gary Peck, Nevada ACLU executive director.
Peck said his organization is willing to work for free with Warren's attorney, John Lusk, in resisting the Boulder City lawsuit if Warren decides to fight it in court. National ACLU officials also have expressed interest in getting involved in the case, he added.
Lusk has spoken with the ACLU but declined to say whether he will take up its offer. Stressing that his first obligation is to protect Warren's interests, Lusk noted that a trial could be expensive and carries the risk of losing the home.
Peck agreed that it might be in Warren's best interest to settle the case because of the uncertainties of any court case.
"I would think she would have a strong case in the court of law," Peck said. "She certainly has a strong case in the court of public opinion.
"It demonstrates how misguided asset-seizure laws are and underscores the way in which the war on drugs is a war on the American people. This is a woman accused of having six marijuana plants in her house. The effort to seize her house is disproportionate to the offense."
Boulder City Attorney Dave Olsen said Lusk told him about the ACLU's interest in the case, but added that will not affect the negotiations.
"The ACLU is a very important part of our (American) process," Olsen said. "They get involved in constitutional issues, and you need to respect that. But merely hearing the ACLU rattling sabers does not cause any fear. We feel we have a very good case on this one."
Olsen, who said he is willing to settle because he, too, always runs the risk of losing in court, said Friday that he will seek a settlement of between zero and $100,000.
Lusk, who has suggested a token payment, declined to say what it will take to settle the case. But he emphasized that his client would not pay $100,000.
"If that's the number, a settlement wouldn't get off the ground," Lusk said.
Olsen said he is interested in a settlement that would at least recoup the costs of the police investigation and surveillance and other expenses that led to a raid of Warren's home in April. He said he does not know what that specific figure is.
If the two sides cannot reach an agreement, the city will take the case to court, Olsen said.
Warren was originally charged by the Clark County district attorney's office with possession of marijuana with intent to sell and conspiracy to possess marijuana, both felonies. Rather than take the case to court, the district attorney plea bargained it to a misdemeanor possession charge that required Warren to pay a $500 fine to complete drug counseling.
Nevada ACLU attorney Allen Lichtenstein called Boulder City's attempt to extract a payment as high as $100,000 improper use of forfeiture laws, which he says were designed to go after organized crime. When such laws were enacted across the nation during the past three decades, civil libertarians feared they would be abused in this manner, he said.
"This kind of case is an abuse of power," Lichtenstein said. "Regardless of the outcome, to put a house in jeopardy has a chilling effect on the public. The laws were never intended for this kind of case."
Olsen, though, said the forfeiture laws were not designed only for tackling organized crime. He said selling drugs in a small community like Boulder City is a threat to the community, especially its youth, and taking someone's house sends a message that it will not be tolerated.
"If you tell someone we are doing this for someone possessing a small amount of marijuana it sounds terrible, but if you say there is commercial marijuana growing in one room of the house, it sounds a whole lot different," Olsen said.
Peck said state legislation passed in 2003 made it tougher for authorities to seize property. Boulder City's pursuit of Warren's home, he added, demonstrates that further changes are needed.
"No one in the public is going to rest easier if they take her house away," Peck said. "If you are somehow trying to claim this is a powerful deterrent, that is ridiculous."
I swear I'd like to shoot whoever came up with these forfiture laws. I mean, I could maybe understand if this woman was a major drug supplier and she bought the house from the proceeds of this, but this is totally ridiculous.....