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The State

Grass Stains, Not a Pot Farm, Blamed for Bills

Carlsbad homeowners say their high use of electricity reflects a busy but boring family life. Police suspected other possibilities.

March 28, 2004|Deborah Schoch | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Dina Dagy says her family is downright boring. She drives a minivan. Her three children play soccer. She also does several loads of laundry a day, pushing her utility bills so high that a police drug team arrived at her home in Carlsbad recently, search warrant in hand.

The Dagys' electricity bill had caught the attention of investigators who suspected the family of five must be using indoor lights to grow marijuana.

Instead, they turned up Dagy, who says her only transgressions were, well, boring: doing laundry, operating a dishwasher, running four ceiling fans and three computers, and trying to keep up with three active children who leave the lights on.

Dagy is asking police for an apology in writing and the assurance that such incidents won't happen again. She wonders what her neighbors think after seeing police climbing a ladder and removing a screen to peer through her windows.

"It's hard to believe a high utility bill would be enough to issue a state warrant," Dagy said. "In the back of your mind, you've got to be thinking, 'There's got to be something else.' "

Carlsbad police say that they have apologized verbally several times and that they obtained a search warrant because an initial probe suggested someone in the house might be raising marijuana.

"I understand they feel something isn't appropriate here, but it is very much consistent with how search warrants are prepared," said Carlsbad Police Lt. Bill Rowland.

The practice of tracking drug growers through electricity bills is not unusual, police officials say, because so-called "grow houses" use intense indoor lights to simulate sunlight.

Utility bills were reviewed during a six-month investigation that resulted in 26 search warrants executed March 19 in San Diego County, concentrated in the Poway area.

Twenty of those raids turned up marijuana, said Special Agent Misha Piastro, a spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which helped coordinate the effort. Piastro said he was not aware of any complaints from those whose homes were raided, except the Dagys.

The warrant served on the Dagys was the result of a tip of "activity" on their street, Piastro said. The federal agency asked Carlsbad police to investigate further. When records showed the family spent $250 to $300 a month on utilities, police took a drug-sniffing dog past the property.

"There was a 'positive alert,' " Rowland said. In law-enforcement circles, that means the dog sits down, allegedly in the area where it smells drugs. A police affidavit notes that the family takes out its refuse on the morning of trash pick-ups, a practice of drug growers trying to conceal evidence.

So police obtained a search warrant for the Dagys' home, and, on March 19, six Carlsbad police investigators and a uniformed officer arrived at the Dagys' door. When no one answered, they telephoned Dina Dagy's husband, Beryl, at work. In turn, he called his wife at the elementary school where she was volunteering in her son's second-grade classroom. Dina Dagy recalls that her husband told her: "They're police officers. They won't discuss this on the phone, but they're going to knock down the door."

Dagy rushed to her minivan just as a police car drove up. She is grateful the police did not enter the school and escort her out. "I would have been so embarrassed," she said, "and my son would have died: 'They're taking your mommy away!' "

Back at their house on Ivy Street, Dagy unlocked her door so that police could search the house. They even inspected her children's Legos and Barbie dolls, she said. No marijuana was found.

The Carlsbad Police Department will conduct a review to make sure the investigation was conducted correctly, Rowland said. At the DEA, Piastro said Carlsbad police appeared to have acted appropriately.

"In my opinion, they did an outstanding job of handling that situation," he said. "They did it in a way that was least intrusive and least inconvenient to that family."

But Dina Dagy says that, if her family's experience was standard procedure, something needs to change, so that other innocent families are not targeted as hers was. She has written to city officials and to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, hoping to draw their attention to the matter.

"We don't have a criminal record -- I promise, on a stack of Bibles," she said.

All too often, the homes of innocent people are searched because of faulty investigations, said Mike Marrinan, a San Diego-based attorney who specializes in police-related civil rights cases.

"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."

Dina Dagy still does not understand why her family was targeted. Yes, she admitted, she has two daisy plants in her house, an azalea plant and cut flowers in the living room. She likes to grow things.

She paused.

"When you say 'growing things,' it sounds so ominous," she said.

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