By PAUL PAYNE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Sonoma County sheriff’s deputies were stumped one afternoon in 2008 when they tried to serve an arrest warrant in rural Santa Rosa but could not find the address.
Assuming there was some mistake in their documents, Deputies John Misita and David Tait went to the nearest house on Llano Road, walked through a latched gate and started looking around for people to talk to.
Behind an interior fence on the property they spotted a large barn with a locked door and an extension cord running to it. Then they heard a humming sound and saw exhaust fans poking out the back.
They had stumbled upon a marijuana farm, but they also had walked into what would become a legal controversy involving the sanctity of the home, privacy rights and just what officers can do when they suspect wrongdoing.
A conversation with resident Peggy Doolaege, 60, confirmed their suspicions about the marijuana. She said her husband, adult sons and a daughter-in-law were growing marijuana for medical reasons.
Her statements and evidence obtained in a later search warrant were enough to win pleas from five of six co-defendants, some of whom were convicted of felonies and sentenced to four months in jail.
But Doolaege’s son, Justin Doolaege, 35, appealed, arguing the evidence should not have been admitted because it was obtained illegally. Earlier this month, a three-judge panel of the state’s 1st District Court of Appeal agreed, saying officers violated his right to privacy.
Although the court decision isn’t precedent-setting, lawyers said it was a victory not only for medical marijuana advocates, who say they are routinely subjected to unfair searches, but also for anyone who values their Fourth Amendment rights.
“There is still a law on the books that says your home is your castle,” said Richard Ingram, a lawyer for brother, Casey Doolaege, 39, whose charges were dismissed. “You just can’t roam around the place.”
Justin Dooleage’s attorney, Judy Conry, said the ruling could influence judges tasked with carefully scrutinizing search warrants to be sure they aren’t based on ill-gotten information.
“This was a family caught up in a mess,” Conry said. “They were not trying to make a million in marijuana.”
But a prosecutor said the law allows police to look for people named in a search warrant even if it means going to a different address. What matters is that officers had a reasonable belief that the person could have been there, said Diana Gomez, chief deputy district attorney for Sonoma County.
It’s not unusual for them to uncover other crimes in the process, Gomez said.
“Oftentimes people get caught with the goods because the officer happens upon it,” she said. “It’s absolutely acceptable as long as they have a legitimate reason to be there in the first place.”
With the ruling, Justin Doolaege will be allowed to withdraw his no-contest plea to felony cultivation at a hearing before trial Judge Gary Medvigy on July 18.
Because all the evidence against him will be suppressed, prosecutors won’t file new charges, Gomez said.
Lawyers for the other defendants will ask that they also be allowed to withdraw their pleas. However, it is unclear whether if Medvigy can allow it.
“I think it would be the fair thing to do,” said Steve Spiegelman, a lawyer for Lana Doolaege, 36, who pleaded no contest to misdemeanor possession.
Calls and e-mails to members of the Doolaege family were not returned.
The case stemmed from a Dec. 11, 2008, warrant for a person who then lived at 2870 Llano Road. Deputies using a GPS system testified they were unable to find the house after a five-minute search and assumed the numbers in the address had been transposed.
They went to 2780 Llano Road and found a house surrounded by fence. They went through the gate and knocked on the front door. No one answered.
That’s when they noticed the interior fence and a barn that they concluded was being used to grow marijuana.
The deputies left but returned five minutes later. This time Peggy Doolaege answered the front door and said she didn’t know the man they were looking for.
They asked if marijuana was being grown in the barn. She said it was but the family had medical marijuana cards. A man and woman walked up who deputies said smelled of marijuana. One had marijuana clippings on the front of her clothes.
The detectives then sealed the property and called in narcotics officers, who obtained a search warrant.
They discovered 1,500 plants and 145 pounds of processed marijuana, some of it in packaging indicating it was being sold, said Sheriff’s Lt. Dennis O’Leary.
All were arrested and five of the co-defendants were charged with three felonies each.
In court, Casey Doolaege’s attorney moved to suppress evidence based on the lack of a warrant. His private investigator, Chris Reynolds, testified he found the correct house on the first attempt.
“It took me less than one minute to see the mailboxes, drive down the driveway and locate the property,” he testified.
Prosecutors argued the deputies acted in good faith to try to find the house they thought was the target of the warrant.
Medvigy agreed that it was reasonable and that subsequent contact with the defendants was consensual, in part because there was no expectation of privacy in the front yard.
“They could have knocked on front door and if nobody answered jumped in their cars and left,” O’Leary said. “But they had an arrest warrant for a person. They wanted to make sure that person was not on that property.”
Facing trial, the defendants accepted plea bargains in exchange for probation.
Only Justin Doolaege appealed.
In their review, justices said there was no evidence that the man on the warrant was on the property. Also, they said it was clear from the fences and gates that the Doolaeges had taken steps to keep their property private.
Evidence collected from the barn and interviews with the defendants was obtained illegally, they said.