Will Laudanski was riding his bicycle down East Pine Street in 2005 when a car slammed him into a maple tree. A former paramedic from New York City and a veteran airborne ranger in the Gulf War, he suffered injuries to his shoulder, knees, and worst of all, his head—resulting in painful migraines.
"They started coming every day," Laudanski says. "The severe ones can last three days. I can't eat. I vomit to the point of puking up blood. And several times I've been taken to the hospital." Standard pharmaceuticals don't work, cost $100 a pill, or are the sort of "antipsychotics that leave you there drooling," he says.
Later that year, a doctor suggested Laudanksi try smoking marijuana occasionally. "I was able to drop the migraines down to one or two a month," he says. Sometimes marijuana "can stop a migraine in its tracks with no side effects."
A law approved by voters in 1998 makes marijuana grown and used under a physician's care legal in Washington State, and in 2008, the state's Department of Health decreed that a patient who has 15 or fewer plants is complying with that law. And in 2003, Seattle voters passed a law that says that the Seattle Police Department (SPD) must make marijuana intended for personal use the lowest priority for investigations and enforcement.
So Laudanski, 50, was in full compliance with state and city rules by growing two small pot plants—each about 14 inches tall—in the apartment he moved into in September in Leschi. "This place is so quiet, I found out one of my cats has a wheeze," he says.
That quiet broke on the night of October 25, when Laudanksi heard a fleet of footsteps stomping up the stairs outside his second-floor unit.
"At approximately 2142 hours we arrived at the target location," SPD officer Ryan Keith writes in an incident report. He and a team of officers had "donned raid equipment." Their gear included pistols on every officer, a battering ram, and, according to Laudanski, at least two submachine guns. "I heard and observed Officer Nadell knock loudly on this door and shout 'Seattle Police with a search warrant, open the door,'" the report by Officer Keith continues. "After a reasonable amount of time, I heard Sgt. Garth Green give a verbal 'Breach command.'"
Laudanski had just stepped out of his bathroom. "I was tying my robe," he says. "I said, 'I am opening the door,' but before I could get my hand to door, they busted it open and then rushed me. There were muzzles in my face. I was trying to comply. Then they pushed me down to the ground and just basically got me positioned in a corner of the kitchen with my face on the floor."
Six to nine officers fanned across the apartment. Facedown next to a litter box, Laudanski told police that he was an authorized medical-marijuana patient and directed them to his physician's authorization in the other room. He "had paperwork in this room declaring his marijuana grow was for medical purposes," police acknowledge in the report. In the bedroom, officers found two marijuana plants growing in pots.
"They were able to see the full extent of my pathetic grow," Laudanski says. "There were four little nuggets of bud the size of your pinkie on one and five on the other."
The conclusion of the police, after breaking his door open, busting the lock, pushing him to the ground, and stomping around with submachine guns? "There was no law violation that was discovered," said SPD spokesman Sean Whitcomb, reached by phone the next day. A receipt from the search warrant confirms, "No property seized."
Political leaders have been scrambling to explain why so many city resources were spent on a low-level case, particularly when the suspect was innocent. Democratic state senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-36) called the raid on Laudanski "totally inexcusable." She added, "Will could have been shot." Kohl-Welles is right: Armed nighttime drug raids have resulted in at least a dozen fatal shootings in the U.S. in the past several years—including innocent residents shot by SWAT teams and cops shot by residents who think their home is being robbed.
"I apologize for the city for allowing this to happen," said Seattle City Council member Nick Licata.
And Mayor Mike McGinn, after nearly a week of silence on the raid, announced on November 1 that he would lead an executive review of the city's marijuana policy along with police chief John Diaz, city attorney Pete Holmes, King County prosecuting attorney Dan Satterberg, and Licata. "The group will review existing policies and make recommendations regarding any changes," McGinn told The Stranger. In addition, Diaz has required that assistant chief Jim Pugel personally approve all future search warrants for marijuana. That provides no guarantee of policy change but does open the door for a shift in police procedures.
Why did it happen in the first place? The answers are contained in a weak search warrant. "You could establish probable cause with tons of evidence or just establish probable cause," says King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office deputy chief of staff Ian Goodhew. "It is a fairly low standard, but it's one that is required for a search warrant."
This "low standard," according to an affidavit filed by narcotics detective Tyrone Davis used to apply for a search warrant, was the mere smell of pot. Triggered by the complaint of one neighbor, on October 13, Davis and his sergeant walked outside Laudanski's apartment and saw a boarded-up window with a fan in it, the affidavit says, suggesting a ventilation system typical of indoor marijuana cultivation. Davis could also smell marijuana near the apartment's south window. "I could smell this odor even stronger as I placed my nose near the window," he writes. "It was clear to me that an odor of marijuana was coming from behind that window."
This search warrant makes clear that SPD had every indication that this was a small garden—it was in an apartment, after all. Large marijuana grows are in houses or warehouses, and often pungent enough to smell distinctly from the street.
But SPD's Whitcomb says officers need to investigate complaints of potentially illegal behavior—and the standard procedure in narcotics cases is a fully armed raid on a private home. "When dealing with limited information, we have to act," he says. "We do that by gathering information of any evidence of any criminal violation." But the warrant reveals SPD didn't use all its leverage to gather evidence before taking a scorched-earth path of investigation. For instance, state law allows officers to obtain electricity records that would indicate if a large number of lights were being used for a major operation, to speak to people in the neighborhood to find out if commercial activity appeared to be under way, or to observe the apartment to see if a tenant was using the property primarily as his home. Such procedures would have indicated that this was a small personal grow (the lowest priority under city law) and likely a medical-marijuana grow (legal under state law).
SPD's own directive established this January on medical marijuana says a "supervisor's decision to take action or not should be weighed in favor of keeping the community safe." The directive names eight factors to consider: presence of a "for profit" operation, weapons, electricity theft, other illegal drugs, evidence of narcotics trafficking, presence of children, environmental concerns, or violent crime.
This warrant shows police saw none of those signs.
King County prosecutor Satterberg's office certified the warrant anyway (it was then approved by a judge), despite issuing its own policy in 2008 saying that Satterberg won't prosecute people for medical marijuana and that he supports law enforcement's "reasonable efforts to carefully and sensitively investigate these [marijuana] cases."
"I acknowledge that the amount of force used compared to what officers ended up finding can seem out of proportion," Goodhew says.
Senior deputy prosecutor Ellen O'Neill-Stephens, who certified the search and is notoriously cynical about medical marijuana, is the same person who authorized a search on a medical-marijuana advocacy group's office based on an unsubstantiated tip in 2008. Both warrants resulted in no arrests.
"This is maddening," says ACLU of Washington drug-policy director Alison Holcomb. "It's unacceptable that this could happen when we have a medical-marijuana law, a 'lowest law enforcement priority' ordinance, and written policies calling for 'careful' and 'sensitive' investigation of these cases."
In fact, the bust may be revealing a rebellion of the rank-and-file officers and narcotics prosecutors who are out of step with their departments' official (though arguably halfhearted) directives to avoid these sorts of busts. "Based on what seems to be fairly clear guidelines for the investigation in the department's policy manual, it would appear that either inadequate training or disregard for policies established by department leadership was at play here," Holcomb says.
In the meantime, the police department's Office of Professional Accountability has begun investigating the incident, responding to a citizen complaint of police misconduct, and Laudanski has been discussing the matter with a civil-rights lawyer.
"I haven't been able to sleep for two days," says Laudanski. "That's how this has left me. This should not have to happen to anyone else. I could be dead or in the hospital or permanently injured."