In a recent case outside of Jacksonville, Florida, the police began investigating a suspect after they saw his vehicle outside of a hydroponic retail store. The police tracked the suspect’s license plate to his house where they saw the vehicle parked. The house windows were covered with blinds, and there was a large fence surrounding the back yard so the police could not determine what was in happening inside the house or in the back yard. Based upon the suspected hydroponic equipment inside the house, the police suspected the house was being used to grow marijuana. One of the first things the police will do upon such a suspicion is check the electricity consumption at the house. Marijuana grow houses typically require much more electricity than other houses. When police see an electric bill at one house that is routinely much higher than the neighboring houses, that is an indication that it is being used as a marijuana grow house.
In this case, the electricity consumption was normal. However, the police still suspected the occupants of the house were cultivating marijuana. The police assumed the occupants were stealing electricity so the total electricity consumption of the house was not reflected on the electric bill. The police contacted an investigator at the electric company to inspect the house for possible electricity theft. The electric company investigator went to the house, broke the lock on the fence and went into the back yard. In the back yard, he discovered that the occupants were running unmetered electricity into the house. The electric company told the police about the electricity theft, and the police asked the occupants for consent to search the house. The occupants of the house refused to consent to a search of the house, but the police were able to obtian a search warrant. They searched the house and found the marijuana cultivation equipment inside. The occupants were charged with trafficking in marijuana, cultivation of marijuana, possession of drug paraphernalia and electric utility theft.
There are many issues that arise in a case like this. First, under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution, in order for the police to enter one’s home, or even one’s back yard, the police must either have consent or a search warrant. In this case, it was the electric company investigator who went into the back yard without a warrant or consent. However, those Constitutional protections do not apply to private entities, like the private electric company. The criminal defense lawyer cannot file a motion to suppress evidence found by a private person. An exception to this rule would apply if the police directed the private person to enter one’s home or back yard without a warrant or consent. For instance, if the police asked the electric company investigator to go into the back yard and look for a marijuana grow house, that would be an illegal search. In this case, the court found that the electric company conducted the inspection on its own. Once the electric company investigator learned of the electricity theft and told the police, the court determined that the police had sufficient evidence to obtain the search warrant to find the marijuana cultivation equipment.