Updated with with comments from the prosecutor’s office. Updated again at 5:25 p.m. with verification that Seattle City Light did provide power records to police for the apartment unit.
Seattle City Light has told The Stranger that it gave police electricity records from an apartment raided for marijuana in October (when officers found two plants that were considered legal under state medical-marijuana rules), contradicting claims from the county prosecutor's office that obtaining those power records was impossible.
At issue is whether Seattle police could have found out if the medical marijuana grow was tiny before conducting an armed raid—or possibly avoiding the botched raid altogether. Police can request copies of electricity records in writing under state law. Huge power consumption in a small apartment can indicate that many high-powered lights are involved in a large marijuana garden. In contrast, power records for the apartment of Will Laudanki would likely have shown his electricity rates were normal—making it clear he was growing a small amount.
But Ian Goodhew, deputy chief of staff for the King County Prosecuting Attorney, told the Seattle Times that Seattle police did attempt to obtain power records for Laudanski's apartment. However, Goodhew said, they were told those records were unavailable for the apartment unit, only the entire building, so they weren't pertinent.
Asked by email to clarify, Goodhew wrote yesterday, "My understanding is the detective tried to speak with city light but the only information they had at the time was usage for the apt building not necessarily the single apt." Asked where this information came from, he wrote, "My information came from Ellen [O'Neill-Stephens, the prosecutor who certified the search warrant] who recalled discussing the power issue with the detective."
But Seattle City Light spokesman Scott Thomsen says the utility company does have records for Laudanki's apartment.
"I do have an individual record for that address and that unit," Thomsen says of Laudanki's address, apartment number, and name on the account. "We received a request for that information from the police department on October 18 and we did respond to that request, and we had a meter reading on that unit for that month," says Thomsen. He said he can't provide details on what that reading showed or whether the power use was normal or abnormal. He says Laudanki had not lived in the unit very long—less than the full two-month billing cycle—but again, he clarifies, "We were able to provide the consumption data for that unit."
Asked specifically if data was available only for the entire apartment building, Thomsen, said, "No, it was for that account."
Goodhew says, "As far as I know that information was not presented to our [deputy prosecuting attorney]. I don't know if the detective had it either. You would have to ask SPD. What it does show is the police did look into power as I was told."
But what remains unclear: strong>Where did this story come from that the police couldn't get power records?
Police did not include the records provided by City Light in the search warrant, which the prosecutor's office certified. I've got calls in to the police department to ask why they weren't included (perhaps the power consumption wasn't consistent with a big grow operation?).
More after the jump.
I reached Goodhew this morning, when City Light had said they did have records for the individual unit but hadn't yet confirmed that they gave them to police. He says the prosecutor handing the case “recalled asking the question, ‘Do we have any information on power used.’ She recalled the detective telling her that he had looked into it and it was his understanding was that, because it was an apartment building, he couldn’t get the information. But it sounds like, from your discussion with Seattle City Light, that is not the case.”
Asked where the information broke down—the prosecutor who told him the records didn't exist, the detective who told her, what the power company said, or if the information was ever even requested—Goodhew said he wasn’t sure. “I have no evidence that the detective lied,” he said. “I have no evidence that O’Neill Stephens lied. Did City Light lie? I don’t know. They could have been wrong or the detective could have been wrong.”
He said that The Stranger could not talk to O’Neill-Stephens to verify her account of events.
“Just because we got the power records and it show normal usage that doesn’t mean the search wouldn’t have happened,” he said. The smell of marijuana alone—regardless of the size of the grow—is probable cause for a raid, he said. “That’s established by the U.S. Supreme Court and the state supreme court, in case after case."
Here’s the crux of the problem. Law enforcement is hiding behind the fact that pot is illegal, while dodging the fact that cops and prosecutors enforcement enjoy wide discretion on how to investigate. And raiding a private home—particularly when officers haven’t made a good-faith effort to determine if there is a serious law violation—is the most extreme tactic police can undertake or an investigation. Hiding behind the pot’s illegality is beside the point—the issue is about discretion on how the law is enforced.
“In the vast majority of cases we use discretion and we are looking at our systems to see if we can do better," Goodher says. "That’s why we participated in the meeting and that’s why he will continue to advocate bringing more clarity to the law when it comes to marijuana.”