A $1-billion lawsuit filed Friday in federal court accuses Kern County and its Sheriff's Office of violating a local hemp grower's civil rights by wrongfully seizing plants for unscientific testing and then withholding public information about the crop's destruction.
Alleging the county carried out "one (of) the largest wholesale destructions of personal property by government entities in the history of the United States," the 58-page suit sheds new light on a conflict that has been brewing since the county ordered the bulldozing in late October of what it says were close to 500 acres of illegal marijuana growing in the Arvin area.
Plaintiff Apothio LLC says it had briefed several county officials about its activities but was never told it was doing anything wrong until sheriff's deputies showed up Oct. 25 in "full tactical gear" to oversee the destruction of plants the company asserts were being grown for use in seizure medicine.
Defendants named in the suit are Kern County, the Sheriff's Office, Sheriff Donny Youngblood, KCSO Sgt. Joshua Nicholson, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and CDFW Director Charles Bonham.
Kern's office of County Counsel did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. The CDFW said it does not comment on litigation. The Sheriff's Office has previously declined to address Apothio's claims against the county.
In November, Kern officials rejected a claim for $1 billion in damages that Apothio had filed against the county. That set the stage for the lawsuit now in U.S. District Court Eastern District of California.
Apothio, founded and operated by former Indiana chiropractor Trent Jones, says it is an agricultural research organization working with Santa Monica-based Rand Corp., Cerro Coso Community College in Ridgecrest and the Kern Community College District.
The company asserts its status as a research organization gives it permission under federal law to cultivate and possess hemp even if its crop tests above the federal limit of 0.3 percent THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.
The lawsuit says that in February of 2019, Apothio contracted the services of local farmers H&H Farms, Lehr Bros. Inc., Mike Cauzza Farms, Petrissans Dairy, Stenderup Ag Partners and Vandborg Farms. In all, the lawsuit says Apothio contracted the production of nearly 500 acres of hemp in a series of fields in the Arvin area.
The idea, it says, was to produce a variety of non-psychoactive, hemp-derived materials using intellectual property built into Apothio's seed inventory.
The company says it shared information about its activities with the county's agricultural commissioner, as well as Kern's planning director and KCSO officials, none of whom objected to Apothio's plans. It says the ag commissioner registered the local acreage as belonging to a qualified hemp researcher.
But at 8 a.m. on Oct. 25, the lawsuit states, KCSO and CDFW officials showed up at a Mike Cauzza Farms field near Arvin with an allegedly deficient search warrant that the company says it still has not been given a chance by the Sheriff's Office to review in full. It asserts the warrant paperwork was supposed to be turned over for public review within 10 days of the warrant's execution but that the county has failed to do so.
The suit alleges Nicholson told Jones that morning that two of the fields named in the warrant contained only hemp plants with THC levels below the federal limit but that they would be destroyed along with the others.
In addition to destroying the fields with a KCSO bulldozer, agency officials ordered farmers to use their own tractors to knock over a total of 17 million hemp plants, some as high as 15 feet tall, which were left to wilt where they fell. That means Apothio's intellectual property — roughly 120 million seeds per acre, the company says — were lost and left to germinate unprotected from possible theft.
Apothio's lawsuit also takes issue with testing KCSO allegedly performed on the company's crops prior to their destruction. It says the county had no authority to take samples and that the equipment and process it used could not be expected to produce accurate results.
The company further asserts that as a qualified agricultural researcher it is exempt from requirements that hemp be tested for THC content.