Marijuana grow bust in Adams County: Justifiable raid or police abuse?

The passage of medical marijuana laws HB 1284 and SB 109 has hardly ended disputes among small-time growers and the police about what's legal and what's over the line.

The case of Ann Marie Miller, who's facing felony cultivation charges based on a plant count that she says includes dead growth she was throwing away, exemplifies the confusion.

The stories offered by Miller, 36, and Commander Jerry Peters of the North Metro Drug Task Force, supplemented by representatives of the Adams County Sheriff's Office, are as widely varied as they can be. Let's start with her version.

Back in March, Miller says, she was working as an apartment manager at a complex near the intersection of 72nd and Pecos. She'd previously had disputes with the landlord, who accused her of stealing. But things escalated due to a water leak in Miller's apartment. She says the landlord entered her residence to investigate and discovered that she was growing a modest number of marijuana plants.

According to Miller, she's a medical marijuana patient who had, at that time, a provisional license based on a doctor's recommendation. (In May, she says, her application was rejected because of a technical error: She'd submitted a copy of a check rather than a check stub as proof of address.) She also maintains that she had paperwork from two other patients designating her as their caregiver. By her reading of Amendment 20, which legalized medical marijuana in Colorado, she was entitled to eighteen plants.

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Miller says this explanation didn't sway the landlord, who fired her and called the police.

At this point, things get fuzzy. Miller says representatives of the Adams County Sheriff's Office arrived to investigate the landlord's theft and embezzlement claims at about the same time as the North Metro Drug Task Force showed up to look into the report about marijuana. Hence, she's not sure which body was represented by an officer who demanded entry into her apartment. But Miller insists that she didn't give permission for the cops to enter, only to have one of them tell her they'd kick down the door and arrest her if she didn't acquiesce.

The plants weren't tough to find, Miller allows, but a vigorous search continued after they were located. "They were just completely destroying my apartment," she says. "They threw my makeup in the sink, they were stepping on things, throwing things on the kitchen counter. They even threw some of my clothes in the toilet. I was getting really upset at seeing all my stuff being trashed and asked them to stop destroying things. And one of the cops said if I kept asking them to stop, they'd throw me to the ground, put a foot in the middle of my back, and arrest me."

That would have been a problem for more reasons than one. Miller had recently found out she was pregnant.

"They took away a lot of growing equipment I'd bought because there was a sale -- an extra light I wasn't using -- and seized my license and caregiver certificates," she continues. "And I only had thirteen plants, because I'd cut some down and threw them in the trash. But they threw the trash in the middle of the living room and picked the dead plants out of it -- maybe seven of them."

A few days later, Miller says, she returned from a shopping trip to discover that she'd been locked out of her apartment and all her belongings were placed in the parking lot -- with the exception of the marijuana plants, which were still locked inside her former dwelling place.

Because Miller contends that she hadn't been properly evicted, and since she'd paid rent through the end of the month, she feels she had a right to get the plants back -- so, with the help of a friend, Anthony Barrett, she broke a window to gain access to them.

This decision resulted in another call to the Adams County Sheriff's Office, which confirms that Miller has been hit with second-degree burglary and misdemeanor theft counts; otherwise, the ACSO will not discuss her case. She also faces a felony marijuana cultivation accusation.

And now for something completely different: Commander Jerry Peters's take, based on the task force's report on the incident.

"When the North Metro Task Force detectives arrived," he says, "our detectives spoke to Ms. Miller, who granted verbal permission to search her house to look at the plants.

"The detectives did search the entire apartment," Peters goes on, "but they didn't disturb anything, so what she's alleging is false. What they found there -- and they took pictures to illustrate this -- was that she'd destroyed her own apartment to further her grow by putting ventilation systems through wiring, through doors, knocked holes out with hammers."

Peters also disputes any suggestion that his officers threatened Miller with arrest: "She told them she was pregnant, and because she was so cooperative, they chose not to take her to jail. Instead, they released her on a written custody, which was the appropriate thing to do."

Regarding the key question about the number of plants, Peters says, "our detectives stated there were 21 plants found at the location. The plants were either being grown or dried out in a closet."

By the way, Miller says the trash can she mentioned was in the closet -- but Peters's description of the plants doesn't make it seem as if they'd been tossed. The detectives "observed fifteen plants that were all flowering and six plants that were freshly cut and hanging in the closet," Peters notes. "Those plants were wet and had not flowered."

Finally, the documentation: Peters's records show that detectives found paperwork for Miller and one other patient, not two. By his reckoning, Miller could have kept twelve plants -- meaning that she was nine over the limit.

Is this nit-picky even using the task force's figures. Not in Peters's opinion.

"From my perspective, we approach each one of these cases with a very common-sense approach, and obviously giving the benefit of the doubt to the patients and caregivers we encounter," he says. "But there's a lot more to this story than her just being a patient caregiver. There are other potential crimes associated with this investigation, including accusations of embezzlement and the burglary that came later."

Miller has a June 23 court date on the cultivation charge, with hearings pending on the burglary counts. She's represented in the first matter by attorney Rachel Lanzen, who hasn't responded to an interview request, and in the second by lawyer Christine Antoun-Fiedorowicz, who declined to comment.

In the meantime, Miller says Barrett has already taken a plea deal for his role in the break-in and will serve a fifteen-month sentence. The prospect of her being sent to jail, too, terrifies her; she fears she could lose her baby if she's convicted. And besides, she feels she's innocent of all the charges against her.

Two juries will need to endorse this view in order for her to avoid a conviction -- and given the muddiness of the circumstances, figuring out who's right and who's wrong will be a very difficult chore.

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