Problem Solvers: Denver labels home ‘public nuisance’ for 4 marijuana plants

DENVER -- The Washington Park home of a Denver couple has been labeled a public nuisance because of four marijuana plants police seized in their backyard.

"You could be running a child prostitution ring from your house. You could have a meth lab in your house. It's not a pretty thing to have your house labeled as a public nuisance," said the husband, who  agreed to speak with the Problem Solvers if FOX31 protected the identity of him and his wife.

The city of Denver allows people at home to grow six marijuana plants per person or 12 per household, so the couple thought they were following the law. After all, the city website at the time stated, "Marijuana must be grown in a fully enclosed and locked space, indoors or outdoors."

The couple has a six-foot locked fence and surveillance cameras which caught a curious neighbor peeking over their fence Oct. 7, 2017.

"It was just a hobby. Put them in your yard. Put them in your garden. You're allowed to. It's legal. It's Colorado,"  is what the husband assumed.

One day after getting a call from the neighbor, police showed up in the alleyway and the couple's surveillance camera showed an officer peeking over the fence.

Soon, police were back with a search warrant to confiscate the four marijuana plants.

"If people out there think this never happens and the police would never do that, they do. They can," said the husband.  It turns out when Denver's website says "Enclosure," police insist that means a roof and that growing marijuana outdoors is illegal within city limits.

Police arrested the wife and threw her in jail for two and a half days until she was able to see a judge and post bond. Police say they seized 19 pounds of marijuana, which was more than enough to book the wife with felony marijuana distribution.

"We are not criminals and they came at us so hard," said the wife, who was astonished to find herself behind bars for four marijuana plants. The couple and their attorney Rob Corry insist police only arrived at 19 pounds by weighing the 4 plants, which were wet from a snowfall the day before.  All three insist no one can produce 19 pounds of usable pot from just 4 plants. And, under Colorado's Amendment 64, people are allowed to keep the total yield of whatever their legally grown plants produce.

"The city must have wasted $100,000 prosecuting this thing," said Corry, who was able to get the Denver District Attorney to dismiss the criminal charges. But the husband and wife estimate they still spent $26,000 in legal fees because the city attorney slapped their house with a temporary restraining order that labeled the property a public nuisance.

"The city of Denver literally tries to take their home away for four measly marijuana plants. It's insane," said Corry.

At a March 2018 court hearing, the city attorney refused to promise police wouldn't show up and change the locks, so the couple moved out of their home.

"We had to move everything we really needed. We didn't know when we were going to have access to the house again," said the wife.

The Problem Solvers obtained the court transcript where Judge Barry Schwartz described the ordinance as "Draconian" and "Stunning in its existence," but said his hands were tied.

In order to come back home, the couple felt forced to sign the  city's stipulation. The terms included a $2,000 fine, no ability to sell or rent the home without city permission and the city has the right to inspect the home five times over the next 2 and a half years.

"We felt like we had a gun to our head to sign this deal," said the husband.

That's a characterization Denver City Attorney Kristin Bronson bristled at when the Problem Solvers asked her about the city's Public Nuisance Ordinance in 2017. "No one is holding a gun to anyone's head. These are voluntary settlements. Many folks have attorneys representing them," said Bronson at the time.

She  wouldn't talk to the Problem Solvers about this case. Instead, her office released the following statement:

The City Attorney’s Office oversees tens of thousands of cases involving municipal infractions, including nuisance ordinance infractions, each year. It is our office’s mission to ensure that the proceedings in all of these cases are administered fairly according to city law. Nuisance cases stem from complaints from the community, and ensuring the safety of all Denver residents is our highest priority when determining whether or not to proceed with litigation. Denver police officers found 19 lbs of marijuana at the location, and the judge found probable cause to support finding that the property posed a public nuisance concern to the city. The shooting of two teenage boys, one of whom is now paralyzed while the other was killed, attempting to access unsecured backyard marijuana plants earlier this year, clearly demonstrates the need for enforcement of securing outdoor grows under the ordinance.

In January 2017, Keith Hammock was found guilty of second-degree murder, attempted second-degree murder, first-degree assault-deadly weapon, processing or manufacturing marijuana and cultivation of marijuana.

A jury convicted him for the Oct. 9, 2016 shooting that left a 15-year-old boy dead and a 14-year-old paralyzed after they tried to climb over Hammock's fence to steal his marijuana plants.

But the Washington Park couple didn't shoot anyone and maintain the only gun involved in their case was the metaphorical one they felt was pointed at their heads to sign the city's stipulation.

"These stipulations are achieved at the point of a gun. If somebody does not sign this, what happens next? Armed police officers come in with guns and confiscate the home," Corry said.

It turns out the city may be violating its own ordinance. The public nuisance law calls for an oversight committee to include law enforcement and members from the public. But a city spokeswoman confirmed to the Problem Solvers the committee was disbanded about five years ago. When FOX31 emailed the city a follow-up question asking if the city was now violating  its own ordinance, we never received a response.

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