Fresno County supervisors impose medical marijuana crop fines

Marc Benjamin – The Fresno Bee

Fresno County supervisors Tuesday levied their largest fine yet in an appeal of the medical marijuana ordinance, imposing a $99,000 fine against a man who was caught growing 99 plants on his property near Laton earlier this year.

Xiongh Thao lost his appeal on a 5-0 vote, even though a lawyer representing him said sheriff’s detectives improperly cited him.

His appeal was one of two decided on Tuesday. A Squaw Valley woman was fined $1,300 for renting her property to a tenant who grew the crop without her knowledge.

The county’s fine is $1,000 per plant plus 10% interest per month for unpaid fines. It has been enforced since February.

In a statement filed with the county, Thao said deputies arrived at his property on March 3 and counted the plants. When they returned with a citation on March 6 — they had not carried citations three days earlier — the plants had been removed.

Brenda Linder, his lawyer, said the county failed to correctly follow its code enforcement ordinances. She said the medical marijuana ordinance gives property owners 15 days to remove the plants to avoid fines, but that the county has imposed fines even if the plants are removed as soon as they are discovered.

The county’s failure to follow its 15-day nuisance abatement rule, along with the imposition of fines and interest on unpaid fines, are major issues in Linder’s suit against the county on behalf of a client fined $43,000 earlier this year.

In voting for Thao’s fines Supervisor Henry R. Perea said sheriff’s deputies are going to continue to enforce the policy but recognized that the matter will be resolved by a judge.

“We just need clarity in our ordinance as we develop this,” he said.

Supervisors also voted 3-2 to fine property owner Carri McCorkill $1,300 for marijuana found on her property. She and her renter, Matthew Herald, faced up to $26,000 in fines. Herald will have to pay the remainder.

McCorkill said she didn’t know Herald was growing marijuana and that she had rejected other potential tenants who told her they would grow marijuana on her property.

One man, she said, even offered her one year’s rent if she let him grow marijuana.

After a storage container holding the marijuana was discovered in Tulare County, Fresno County sheriff’s detectives were made aware of Herald’s cultivation.

But Fresno County Sheriff’s Sgt. Homer Montalvo said McCorkill told a detective that she knew he likely would have one or two plants on the property.

McCorkill said she visited the property twice in the past year. She said there was nothing on the property that appeared out of the ordinary. She said there was a travel trailer, but not a storage container.

“This happened on my property and I wasn’t aware of it,” she said. “I never would have given anyone permission to cultivate marijuana on my property. Had I known he was, I would have evicted him earlier.”

The conclusion for McCorkill’s hearing was similar to the case for another absentee Kerman homeowner whose tenant grew 30 marijuana plants. The Kerman land owner was fined $3,000.

In other action:

Supervisors approved raising the cap to defend its medical marijuana ordinance from $50,000 to $210,000. The county has hired the law firm of Best, Best & Krieger.

Supervisors confirmed the appointment of Elizabeth Diaz as public defender. She has been public defender on an interim basis the past six months.

Diaz’s appointment required confirmation of supervisors after she was named public defender by County Administrative Officer John Navarrette in June.

Supervisors also voted to sell the former site of the Elkhorn Boot Camp near Caruthers and the old juvenile hall facility on Ventura Street. It has not been determined if the sites will be demolished or sold “as is.”

Supervisors said they were concerned about maintenance, utilities and costs from vandalism and theft at the two properties, which has amounted to more than $900,000 since 2011.

Elkhorn is empty, and about two-thirds of the juvenile hall property is also vacant. Another part of the property is used by the county’s probation department and county computer services. The two properties combined were appraised at about $5 million each.

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