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‘Big-time operation’ busted as Sacramento ramps up pot house enforcement

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Marijuana countdown

Most of the lawns on Innovator Drive in North Natomas are well-trimmed. Christmas wreaths adorned several front doors during the holiday season. Many residents know each other well enough to exchange warm waves and the occasional gift.

But even the family living across the street from 3715 Innovator Dr. does not recall meeting anyone living in that home in recent months. The grass has not been mowed in weeks, there’s garbage on the lawn and an ominous sign stuck to a front window reads: “DANGEROUS BUILDING DO NOT ENTER.”

The Sacramento Police Department raided the home Oct. 30 and allegedly discovered 1,033 marijuana plants inside, according to the city attorney’s office.

“This was a big-time operation,” Sacramento Interim City Attorney Matthew Ruyak said.

According to a lawsuit filed Dec. 8 by Ruyak’s office, the house on Innovator Drive was just the start.

In the weeks that followed the raid, the city attorney and police went after two more homes also owned by Tony K. Ho and Yan Yi Ho, a South San Francisco couple.

A warrant served Nov. 28 discovered 163 marijuana plants inside a home the couple owns on Lock Avenue in the Woodbine neighborhood near Sacramento Executive Airport, the city attorney’s office told the Hos’ attorney in an email. Eight days later, police executed a warrant at a home on Lacam Circle – a quiet side street near New Joseph Bonnheim Elementary School in the Colonial Village neighborhood – and found 369 pot plants, according to the city attorney.

The Ho family was already facing administrative fines of more than $500,000 from the city in connection with the marijuana plants allegedly found inside 3715 Innovator Dr., perhaps the largest administrative penalty ever issued by the city of Sacramento, Ruyak said. Now, they’re also facing a public nuisance lawsuit that could add thousands of dollars more in penalties.

The lawsuit appears to be the first of its kind since the city began increasing its enforcement of illegal marijuana growing operations in residential properties earlier this year. City police and marijuana regulators estimated over the summer there may be as many as 1,000 homes in Sacramento being used to illegally grow pot, and several City Council members demanded tougher enforcement.

Under new regulations adopted by the City Council in August, up to six marijuana plants are can be grown in homes. Property owners are subject to fines of $500 for each plant over that limit.

Homes with large operations can also be declared a public nuisance. If the nuisance isn’t taken care of, property owners face fines of up to $25,000 a day until their home is cleaned up. Large signs can also be placed on nuisance properties declaring those homes drug- and gang-free zones and warning that the properties are being monitored by police.

“We’re sending a message (with the nuisance lawsuit),” Ruyak said. “We’re going to enforce this.”

The city’s lawsuit alleges that the Ho family has allowed illegal grow operations in the houses and that the defendants will continue to allow that activity.

Wei Zhong, an attorney representing the Ho family, said the couple have been responsible property owners. She said they often rely on local property managers to screen tenants for bankruptcies and other credit issues.

They own other homes in Sacramento, including a home on Kenworthy Way in Meadowview that is named in the lawsuit. The suit alleges that home was also being used to grow marijuana, but does not say if the property was raided by police or if marijuana plants have been discovered there.

Zhong said the Ho family had inspected the Innovator Drive home themselves in November 2016 and “there was no problem, there was a family that lived there” with children. But, she acknowledged, “marijuana is a very fast-growing plant” and “there’s a lot of misunderstanding on what the law is in terms of marijuana.”

“My clients, in my opinion, have done everything they could (to prevent) their tenants from doing this,” Zhong said. “We want to abate this issue. It’s a violation of the lease (the tenants) signed with the landlord. The law forbade these kinds of marijuana grows on the premises.”

An email from Zhong to the city attorney’s office said the tenant renting the house on Innovator Drive was present during the police raid, but was not arrested. There are no active cases against that tenant in Sacramento Superior Court, records show.

It’s unclear whether anyone was arrested at the other homes targeted in the lawsuit. The Sacramento Police Department did not immediately respond to a request seeking information about arrests at the houses.

Zhong asked for a dismissal of the fine issued to her clients after the Innovator Drive operation.

“Given the nature of the circumstances and the landlord not being directly involved, it’s an excessive fine,” Zhong said in an interview.

That request was denied based on the subsequent searches on Lock Avenue and Lacam Circle, the city attorney’s office told Zhong in an email.

Ryan Lillis: 916-321-1085, @Ryan_Lillis

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