Reefer Madness: Riverside County Sheriff’s Office Destroys Home for Solar Panels
August 25, 2022
On August 5, 2021, Riverside County Sergeant Julio Olguin and around 20 deputies dressed in green fatigues and tactical gear (according to a complaint filed in federal court) used a battering ram to break down the side door of a home in Lake Elsinore, a bedroom community in Riverside County, California. The house belonged to a retired couple, Mrs. H and Mr. W (who prefer to keep their full identities out of the media). No one was inside, and the deputies spent hours breaking down interior doors and tossing the couple’s belongings around the house.
Their goal? To find that ganja—the green monster, that dank. Why did they think it was there? Well, the elderly couple used solar panels to reduce their overall power use. Low power use is sometimes used by law enforcement as a tell for indoor marijuana grows based on an assumption that the growers are stealing power. (Anyone who has watched television knows that high power consumption is also used as a signal for marijuana grows. Presumably, we are mere months away from average power use being a suspicious attempt to hide too-high or too-low useage.)
When the search of the Lyda Street home proved unfruitful, the deputies went to a house on Carrousel Court, also owned by the couple. Mrs. H was present when Sergeant Olguin knocked on the door and told her that they thought she was illegally growing marijuana. Seeing their uniforms, she assumed they were soldiers and let them inside, believing there was no other option.
While the team found no evidence of a crime, made no arrests, and seized no evidence, they also did not admit a mistake.
Here’s the funny thing – Sergeant Olguin had no search warrant. According to a lawsuit filed by the couple, the law enforcement officer admitted as much after invading their homes. There was also no paperwork filed, not even an incident report, despite the manpower and hours of nearly two-dozen heavily armed officers.
Mrs. H said, according to a press release, “This was a very strange and frightening incident. We did nothing to deserve this, and it made us feel unsafe in our own homes.”
Despite efforts by many community and progressive groups to reduce the use of military-style raids – particularly after police killed Breonna Taylor during a no-knock raid we now know was precipitated by a lie – they are still a common aspect of policing, particularly as part of the so-called “war on drugs.” Note: There are a variety of ways to refer to no-knock or “quick-knock” raids. Since none of these are official, I use the terms “military-style” or “SWAT-style” raids to include all police enforcement that includes military-type equipment like special uniforms, battering rams, flash bangs, etc.
The recent public revelations that law enforcement officers lied when they obtained the search warrant which led to their killing of Breonna Taylor are still fresh. A one-time police detective “admitted that she had known there was not enough evidence to support approving the warrant,” according to the New York Times. The detective has since pled guilty to conspiracy. Breonna Taylor is still dead though.
While this police invasion did not result in anyone’s death, in the case of Mrs. H and Mr. W, law enforcement officers also lied by pretending to have good cause to search when they did not. When almost two dozen armed officers show up at your door, what would be your response? Because the police can use such extreme violence, judges and prosecutors – as well as the general public and media – rely on them to tell the truth; yet, we know they do not. (The Riverside Sheriff’s Office said they could not comment on settled lawsuits.)
Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco won a second term even though he admitted he was a member of the Oath Keepers and attended a questionable special sheriff training course at the Claremont Institute. Bianco has also spent an extraordinary amount of money on military-style equipment, including $700,000 on a “mobile command post.”
It seems unusual that Bianco would use this firepower against an elderly couple who are trying to stave off (at least a little) climate change and save some money. But, taken in the context of his affiliation with an anti-government militia and his desire to channel that firepower into his job, you can see why he would allow his deputies to run amuck and break into people’s homes without even a warrant.
Military readiness is a hallmark of Bianco’s style in running the department. On top of the command center, Bianco has cranked up the battle rhetoric to show, for example, his department’s readiness for policing schoolchildren. (Fun fact: Bianco was never in the military.) He’s also shown his willingness to arm his constituents by dispensing concealed carry permits liberally as well as his eagerness to support anti-vax and other far-right causes. (Bianco has touted his diet as keeping him healthy, eschewing the COVID vaccine.)
Bianco and sheriffs before him have taken particular pride in Riverside’s SWAT team. In a Facebook promotional video, the chorus of “Whose Side Are You On” plays as SWAT team members run, duck, shoot, and otherwise perform military-style moves. According to the department: “The RSO SWAT Team was formed in 1980 following the historic Norco Bank Robbery. Since that time, we have evolved from a collateral duty into a full-time function.” In a recent podcast, Bianco said SWAT was “underutilized,” and praised the leader of his Special Enforcement Bureau (which encompasses SWAT) for being “proactive” and operating around “obstacles,” e.g. state restrictions on SWAT. And apparently warrants. “We have a select group of elite personnel…We are the final option,” Captain Paul Bennett said.
(The Riverside Sheriff’s Office said they could not comment on settled lawsuits.)
While people being severely injured or killed during military-style raids at least draws some attention, it’s worth noting that when victims of such raids experience property damage, civil lawsuits, the only recourse, often provide little recompense. And, of course, no one can compensate for feeling unsafe in your own home. In this case, the couple settled out-of-court for $136,000, not much for a sheriff’s office with an over $930 million budget, but a sign, in the way police lawsuits work, that the claim was legitimate. (Bianco asked for $49 million more from the Board, hiked his rate for policing contract cities, and received at least $4.6 million in COVID relief from the federal government – money he is accused of misusing.)
Almost half of the county budget goes to the sheriff and the district attorney’s office, and Bianco still insists against all logic that he is “underfunded” to explain slow deputy response times. Unsurprisingly, Bianco misses the point – how can he explain having enough money and manpower to justify raiding a retired couple’s home and tearing it up for hours, all over solar panels, while also crying about being “defunded”?
But the most important lesson from cases like these – the ones that result from the workaday use of police power – is that law enforcement will lie in all cases, not just serious ones. While the Riverside deputies did not lie to a judge in this case — because they skipped the judge entirely — they at least lied in the omission of paperwork – as if they wanted to pretend this embarrassing incident never happened. It strikes me as unbelievable that this generated no paperwork – at a minimum, someone must have filed for overtime, right?
Why was Chad Bianco’s “select group of elite personnel” allowed to break into someone’s home without a valid warrant? How many other times has this happened? We probably won’t know because most people won’t come forward with a lawsuit. They will accept that the militarization of police agencies and their unchecked power means that we live under an occupying army that can force us to submit to their whims or get killed for standing in the way.