Big Island Resident Takes Plea in 2007 Indoor Marijuana Case

Hawai`i County resident Robert Petricci knows something about the drug war.

Robert Petricci

Robert Petricci speaking before the Hawaii County Council, August 2008

Early one morning in September, 2007, nineteen police officers in full SWAT gear raided his East Hawai`i farm on a warrant for his indoor marijuana garden.

“I was sleeping,” Petricci told the Hawai`i County Council in 2008. “I was naked. When I got up, they told me they’d shoot me if I put my pants on.”

Petricci said police authorities intentionally trashed his property — and that of his neighbors.

He also told the County Council that one of the agents had specifically manufactured evidence in the case in order to justify the initial search warrant.

Petricci said that a former Hawaii County police officer with a violent past used a type of infrared technology to illegally search his property without a warrant.

“[Officer]John Weber said that he flew over our property in a helicopter and saw marijuana plants growing in our yard, which wasn’t true,” he told the County Council. “And they didn’t find any plants growing in any of the places that he said he saw them. They didn’t have any pictures of it. They didn’t have an informant.”

In an interview with Hawai`i News Daily, Petricci said that he had reviewed the history of indoor marijuana cases in Hawaii County over the past decade in preparation for his day in court. “Between 2001 and 2005,” he said, “there were an average of nine busts per year for indoor marijuana. In 2006, everything changed. That year, there were 48 busts for indoor marijuana operations. And in 2007, there were 54 busts. Why were there 5 times as many arrests in 2006 than in the previous 6 years?”

Petricci has a suspect: Officer John Weber, the man who lead the SWAT team raid on his residence in 2007. According to Petricci, Weber routinely used helicopters and Forward Looking Infrared (or FLIR) technology to discover indoor growing operations in the County of Hawai`i.

“Using FLIR without a search warrant is illegal in the state of Hawaii,” he said.

But Petricci never got to tell his story to a judge.

Long delays in marijuana trials are common. After police authorities have made an arrest, the case may take anywhere from 18-months to 5 years before it can be resolved — with the rate of conviction approaching 100%.

Petricci fought the charges for almost a year before his August 13, 2008 appearance before the County Council.

“Basically, everybody makes a deal,” Petricci told the County Council. “They overcharged us. They’ve got ten felony charges…they threatened to put me…  if I don’t make a deal, four life terms plus 70-years. Plus they’re going to take my house. They already took my truck, my generator, my money, my gun. I don’t have financial resources to even defend myself, and I haven’t been convicted of anything.”

Petricci eventually took the deal.

“It was that or they were going to take my farm,” Petricci told Hawai`i News Daily. “The prosecutor told me that if I kept fighting the civil forfeiture, he was going ask the judge to throw us out of our home while the proceedings went on — maybe for years. How could we pay for an attorney to help us get our house back since the police already took all of our money and shut down my businesses?”

Petricci owns a 10 acre farm in Puna, where he lives with his patrner, Sara Steiner. To earn income, he operates a saw mill, a nursery, and a heavy equipment repair and rental business. Without his farm, he would have no ability to earn income to pay attorney’s fees in the civil case against his home.

“I had to make a deal,” said Petricci. “Everybody does it.”

In return for his plea of no contest, Petricci was sentenced to 30 days in jail, and 5 years probation. The prosecutors agreed to let him keep his farm in return for $75,000 — to be paid to the Circuit Court.

Seizure of property before trial is common in Marijuana cases, says Petricci. “They call it ‘Administrative Forfeiture‘. That’s how they took my truck and my generator. Then they sell it at auction, and the proceeds go back to the police department and the prosecutor.”

By pleading no contest, Petricci accepted the forfeiture of all his real property to the state. The offer of $75,000 to redeem his farm was far short of what the prosecution could have asked for under the law.

“When prosecutors write their budget projections for the year,” Petricci told HND, “they have a line-item for Asset Forfeiture. It could be $3 million dollars, for example. Then, when the fiscal year is over, guess what? They seized $3 million dollars in assets, just like they projected. It’s a scam.”