Newsbrief: Who's Minding Your Utility Bill? 4/2/04

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Who's minding your utility bill? That wasn't a question suburban San Diego soccer mom Dina Dagy was asking herself until a couple of weeks ago. That's when she was summoned from her post as a volunteer at her sonís school by police preparing to raid her home in search of a marijuana grow operation. Her home was targeted as part of a six-month operation coordinated by the DEA that hit 24 Carlsbad area homes on March 19, the North County Times reported in a series of stories this week.

They found pot in 20 of the residences, but not at Dagy's house, leading to the obvious question: Why was she targeted? It turns out that Dagy and her family of five were electricity hogs, and their large utility bill caught the attention of the crusading cops. It must be a grow op, they surmised, confirming their suspicion by having a drug dog alert as they walked it around the perimeter of the property.

"It's hard to believe a high utility bill would be enough to issue a state warrant," Dagy told the Associated Press. "In the back of your mind, you've got to be thinking, 'There's got to be something else.'" But other than the errant drug dog alert, that was it. Oh, there was also, police noted, the fact that Dagy set out her garbage for pickup the morning the garbage men came. That was supposed to be suspicious, police said, because growers don't want to leave evidence lying around. "It was trash day," explained Dagy.

Dagy is demanding a written apology from police and assurances such incidents won't happen again, but beyond verbal apologies, which police have delivered, she isn't likely to get much more satisfaction. "I understand they feel something isn't appropriate here, but it is very much consistent with how search warrants are prepared," Carlsbad Police Lt. Bill Rowland told the AP.

Which leads to another question: Just how are police gaining access to people's utility bills? According to DEA Special Agent Misha Piastro, the raid on the Dagys was the result of a tip of "activity" on their street. The DEA asked Carlsbad police to investigate, Piastro said, and when utility records showed the family was burning up $300 a month in electric bills, police followed up with the drug dog.

Oops! The AP account, which was picked up by the Los Angeles Times, didn't ask that question about utility bills, or how a tip about a street could result in the wholesale scanning of utility bills. At least the local paper, the North Coast Times did. And what it found out wasn't exactly reassuring.

The local utility, San Diego Gas & Electric, said it respected customer privacy. "We would not release customer information without a lawful court order," said spokeswoman Stephanie Donovan. "The subpoena has to be personally served to us, and we would comply." Still, she said, the company tried to get along with police. "We have a very positive working relationship with law enforcement, because we have cases of our own involving energy theft," Donovan added.

But San Diego County Deputy District Attorney Bob Phillips told the paper it wasn't hard to get customer information. Utilities can hand over billing information without a subpoena because "it has been pretty well established" that utility records are public information, he said. Sometimes, he said, officers get subpoenas just to make it easier on the companies to release the information.

More questions remain: Is an anonymous tip about possible "activity" on a block sufficient to get a judge to issue a subpoena for electric bills for the whole block? Did police in this case even bother to get a subpoena? No one has asked or answered those questions yet.

But Mike Marrinan, a San Diego attorney specializing in police-related civil rights cases, said Dina Dagy's experience was not unusual." It is a very, very traumatic event to have a raid conducted on your home," Marrinan said. "Why are they assuming criminal behavior from facts that are completely innocent?" Even if investigators did get a tip about drug activity on Ivy Street, informants are notoriously unreliable, he said. And if the drug dog really "alerted," he said, "the dog made a mistake, which is far too common." Finally, too many judges rubber-stamp investigators' requests for warrants, Marrinan said. "Judges need to be asking more questions and insisting on thorough investigations before they issue search warrants."

And readers, too, should be asking some questions of their local utilities and the local law enforcement establishment. What is the utility's policy on giving information about you to the police? Call up their public relations office and ask. What are police practices in your town? Do they seek warrants or court orders before demanding such information? Ask them, or have your representative ask them. And what about judges? What are their standards for issuing subpoenas? One would hope it requires more than a high electric bill, taking the trash out on the proper day, and ill-trained drug dog.

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Issue #331, 4/2/04 Show Cause Hearing for David Borden and David Guard's Civil Disobedience to Take Place This Morning | DRCNet Interview: Floro Tunubalá Paja, Former Governor of the State of Cauca, Colombia | Meth Panic Mantra: Save the Children | Czech Party Seeks Move to US-Style Drug War Policy | DRCNet Press Coverage | Medical Marijuana Advocate Confronts Congressional Opponent at House Hearing | Newsbrief: Federal Appeals Court Rules Police Can Search Without Warrant | Newsbrief: Addicts Take Prescription Heroin for Safety, Stability -- Not to Quit, Study Finds | Newsbrief: Another Safe Injection Site in British Columbia? | Newsbrief: Drugged Driving Bill Introduced in Ohio | Newsbrief: DUID -- Pass It and They Will Prosecute | Newsbrief: Who's Minding Your Utility Bill? | This Week in History | Job, Grant and Internship Opportunities with MPP | The Reformer's Calendar

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