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Trinity County Judge Overturns $27,000 in Marijuana Cultivation Fines

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Fines of $27,000 issued by Trinity County in a marijuana code enforcement case were overturned by Judge Elizabeth Johnson in Trinity County Superior Court on Tuesday. County officials had claimed that Armando Morales, a local landowner, was in violation of several code violations related to the cultivation of marijuana, but Judge Johnson dismissed the case.

A Trinity County code enforcement officer posted a notice of violation with regard to marijuana cultivation to Morales' fence in Junction City in October. The notice ordered Morales to remove the marijuana plants on the property. However, the notice left Morales confused since County officials had crossed out dates, changed timelines, and had added handwritten instructions that were inconsistent with each other.

The County acknowledged that Morales had complied with the terms of the abatement notice by removing the marijuana plants, but still imposed the fines because it said Morales should have requested a reinspection. Questions emerged about the legality of the service of the notice since the County had neither mailed nor personally served the notice of violation. County Counsel argued in court that the stapling of the code enforcement officer's business card to the notice of violation that was posted to the fence was sufficient notice.

Morales' attorney, Andrea Sullivan, filed an administrative appeal contesting the imposition of the $27,000 in fines by the County. Sullivan argued that the notice posted on the fence was unconstitutionally vague and that the changes made by county officials to dates and timelines combined with the new handwritten instructions resulted in confusion over how to respond to the notice. Sullivan also took issue with the County's contention that the landholder must notify the County as to whether or not he or she chooses to comply with the notice.

Judge Johnson found that the County had not properly served Mr. Morales since merely tacking a business card and notice to the fence was insufficient. Since the County had made no effort to serve Mr. Morales personally or by mail, the Court never had the opportunity to rule on the validity of the altered notice.

Sullivan said she was pleased with the outcome in this case but expressed concern that the unlawful service practice may have been widespread in Trinity County. "I am concerned that property owners throughout Trinity County have had fines and fees imposed on them unlawfully," said Sullivan. "It is troubling that a landowner could remove marijuana plants in the timeframe requested by the County, but still see tens of thousands of dollars in fines levied against him."

SOURCE: The Law Offices of Andrea Sullivan

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