The Sweepings of Greensweep
...by Bernadette Webster
In the third week of July, 1990, two law-abiding United States citizens were held at gunpoint in southern Humboldt County by apparent terrorists. One of these citizens was on his own private property and other was walking on a public trail. Within a week the area was swarming with ground troops and aerial attack helicopters. They were not, however, looking for the perpetrators of the crimes; they were looking for a few marijuana plants. In two weeks, two hundred troops found 1400 pot plants. All of this was done in the name of the Almighty Drug War.
From this action grew a class action lawsuit against Federal, State and local government agencies and the officials involved. The government's own documents showed that the plans for this operation, and several others which followed, were hatched inside the White House. Despite this fact, the judge limited the plaintiffs to suing only the California office of the Bureau of Land Management (CA BLM) because that agency had planned this specific operation. The agents who held the innocent citizens at gunpoint were given immunity because the BLM claimed that they were federal agents. The plaintiffs' claims of use of the military in civilian law enforcement had to be dropped because there is no way to establish the identify of men in camouflage and blackface with M-16s, without access to records. The only claim which withstood the rigors of the federal court system was an environmental one: The National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), requires that parties prepare extensive documents before any major federal action in environmentally sensitive areas, showing that they have considered what effects their action may have on those areas and what they will do to prevent those effects from occurring. No such documentation had been prepared preceding the operation.
Several years into the lawsuit, the Judge ordered both sides to the negotiating table. Her instructions were that the parties should arrive at an agreement which would be acceptable to both sides, and that compliance to the terms of the settlement agreement should prevent any further violation of NEPA, which is federal law.
After years of haggling (the Department of Justice sent in an attorney to aid the Department of Interior when it looked like law enforcement operations could be impacted), the defendants (CA BLM) agreed to write up guidelines for their law enforcement officers involved in marijuana eradication operations on public lands in Northern California. The draft version of these guidelines was to be open to public scrutiny for written comment, which the CA BLM would be required to "consider and respond to" before issuing the final version of the guidelines. When asked to sponsor a public hearing in the affected area, however, CA BLM refused, actually purporting to be concerned for their safety.
The plaintiffs therefore sponsored the necessary hearing. A retired Appeals Court Judge made himself available as moderator. Four environmental attorneys came 200 miles from the Bay Area to listen to the testimony. Court recorders were hired to transcribe all statements. Experts and citizens turned out in force. Their experiences, data, statistics and overviews were both stunning and compelling. The cumulative impact on the visiting judge and the outside attorneys was readily evident at lunch after just three hours of testimony. Even the attorney who has been active on the case for years said later to the defendants that "There was almost no irrelevant testimony. It was an impressive mix of commentors. You would have been impressed with the professionalism and seriousness with which the public presented their comments. Informally, I was taken in a way I haven't been before in eight years, with the profundity with which the operations have impacted this area and community. Until these two days of public meetings, I didn't realize the extent of the effects on the people who live there." He said this to people from the "other side" (Departments of Interior and Justice attorneys, CA BLM's representative, and the man who oversaw the writing up of the guidelines). CA BLM had only received about five comments from all their newspaper solicitations in Northern California. Therefore, they were pretty impressed when the plaintiff's attorneys walked into the meeting and set a very heavy box of comments down on the table.
The plaintiffs have been assured that all comments will be considered and responded to, at least all the general issues raised will be. This does not mean that the defendants will include any of the comments in their final document, but they must show that they have thought about them and explain why they don't use them if they decide not to. CA BLM has six months from the close of the public comment period (February 11, 1999) to issue their final guideline version.
I hope that this will create some caution on the part of the California Bureau of Land Management in the implementation of their weed-whacking missions in this part of the state. It would please me to see law enforcement agencies actually have to obey laws or explain to a judge why it is that they don't. Law enforcers should be our guiding lights, showing us the sanctity of this nation's laws, all of them, and teaching us the respect we should all hold for the democratic fabric of this country by their example.
Citizens of Northern California who are affected by overzealous drug law enforcement owe a particular debt of thanks to the attorneys who have volunteered so much time and energy to this lawsuit. I would especially like to point out the phenomenal dedication of Ron Sinoway, Esq., of Redway, CA. He brought this lawsuit to life and has continued to be a driving force behind it. His enthusiasm made this hearing a reality, impelling many substantial donations of time and money to this project.
The effects of these guidelines remains to be seen. However, one of the major effects, the substantive efforts of citizens in insisting on a responsible government, can already be seen. Perhaps in this lies the true hope of success from this endeavor.