Seattle Weekly - August 13 - 19, 2003
Mr. Narc's Neighborhood
Most pot informants are right next door - or in your own home.
by Rick Anderson
They include the Butt-Crack Narc-plumbers, dryer repairers, or maybe one of the furnace guys-who comes to your house, spots your dinky marijuana grow, and calls the cops. The Utility Narc, from the power or gas companies, might peek through your window or notice you're consuming electricity like an aluminum factory, and drop a dime. The Trash Narc-garbage haulers-can spy your discarded hydroponics packaging and rat you out (your garbage can also later be searched without a warrant for evidence). The Business Narc you had a falling-out with may make an anonymous call about your smoke-filled office, or the Ex-Lover Narc can tell 911 about the reefers in your nightstand. A Criminal Narc informs the cop putting on the plastic cuffs that he bought those joints from you and just happens to know your address. And on rare occasions, the Family Member Narc spills your tribe's secret to authorities.
Though he's had only a few such familial cases, notes Steinborn, 60, who has specialized in marijuana defenses for 25 years, he does have that shirt he wears now and then, stating: "I turned in my parents but all I got was this lousy T-shirt."
When we talked with Steinborn on his cell phone the other day, he was in Mason County, rustling up evidence to defend the alleged members of a local pot-growing ring. As is typical, law enforcement got onto the case with an informant's tip-in this instance, from one of the alleged ring members. "The allegation," Steinborn said, "is that they were all growing pot together, a couple families, and one of the leaders got pissed off and turned them in."
Thing is, "Most neighbors respect the right of American citizens to responsibly use dope in their own homes," he says. "And I think the meter reader who turns you in is the exception today." But informants are still calling in the smoke, and you can never be sure who it is. As those crime-stopping tip lines inform callers, you need not give even your name, rank, or serial number.
Steinborn maintains that cannabis is not a dangerous drug and extreme measures to enforce dope laws are unjustified. In Washington, he says, where marijuana is the state's No. 1 one cash crop, a $5,000 reward awaits those who turn in marijuana farmers. But "I don't know of any rewards that encourage people to turn in murderers, rapists, or child molesters," he says. "It's all truly unfair. Tell me of any comparably minor crime where they take your home and car as well."
He says almost all indoor marijuana cultivation cases begin with anonymous tips. There are few figures, but the Kitsap County Sheriff's Office, for one, says the majority of its pot busts-50 grow operations in 2001-are the result of tips from citizens. That includes several instances of pot gardens planted on state Department of Natural Resources land, spotted by hikers who called in the troops. King County Sheriff's Sgt. Kevin Fagerstrom says the department averages up to six tips a month including e-mail, mostly from neighbors witnessing heavy foot traffic at a nearby residence. "We do not actively recruit these tips; we simply let peoples' conscience guide them," Fagerstrom says. Tipsters include a teenager who turned in his parents. He "was concerned about their well-being and called in the tip for us to bust the parents' grow op," says Fagerstrom. "That caught national news attention."
At his online site (www.potbust.com), Steinborn says informants come in infinite disguises. Some make careers out of unearthing and narcing on (sometimes after ripping off) grow rooms.
"Informants," says Steinborn, "are much more prevalent in the marijuana trade than in other situations, since most marijuana growers are nonviolent and refuse to treat informers in ways that are customary if not mandatory when it comes to other crimes. Anyone who spends much time around the criminal justice system knows that the United States has reversed its moral compass on this issue."
A new local twist is the Military Narc, employing the military's thermal-imaging capabilities for grow-farm flyovers. "The military has crept into civilian law enforcement for the first time in recent history," Steinborn says. "In one case I know of, the state used military aircraft to follow marijuana-grow suspects all over the state. A lengthy investigation produced over 7,000 pages of documents and only a smattering of marijuana plants. This took place in a county where the vast majority of referrals to the Children's Protective Service were for methamphetamine-related problems."
Steinborn says he's had many clients whose home-delivered packages appeared "suspicious" to commercial delivery personnel, who can open any package they choose. "If they find contraband, they contact the police, who then get a warrant- after the real search has taken place."
Landlords, he notes, are a constant threat to a lawless grower. "A landlord does not have authority to bring police onto the private areas of property you rent without a warrant. But the landlord's statement by itself may be enough to get a warrant without any police participation." In some instances, police can simply come to your door at the landlord's request and get a whiff.
In particular, Steinborn advises, beware what he calls "jealous, sanctimonious, or otherwise nosy neighbors." They bring down many a farm, he says, yet because they remain anonymous, you'll never know who squealed. "There's not much you can do about them," the attorney says. "But it never hurts to be a good neighbor."
Yet no informant is so common as the rejected lover or business associate, Steinborn thinks. "If you made the mistake of sharing your private business with someone who later turns on you-well, so it goes. If you weren't so greedy or lazy you'd have done it all by yourself, and there would be no one to snitch you off."
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