The Big Read: What happens when police think you're a drug dealer

By Christopher Ingraham

Annette Shattuck holds her son, Keaton, in their living room while her husband works on repairing the damage from when their home was raided in 2014. Photo by Ali Lapetina for The Washington Post
Annette Shattuck holds her son, Keaton, in their living room while her husband works on repairing the damage from when their home was raided in 2014. Photo by Ali Lapetina for The Washington Post

A self-described Michigan "soccer mum" who had "every belonging" taken from her family in a 2014 drug raid has been cleared of all criminal charges, 19 months after heavily armed drug task force members ransacked her home and her business. But in many ways, her ordeal is only beginning.

Annette Shattuck and her husband, Dale, had been facing felony charges of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, possession with intent to manufacture marijuana and maintaining a drug house. But last month, Michigan Circuit Court Judge Daniel Kelly threw out all criminal complaints filed against the Shattucks "on the grounds of entrapment by estoppel," according to court filings. Entrapment by estoppel occurs when a government official leads a defendant to believe that their conduct is permissible under the law.

The Shattucks' case is an illustration of how the nation's patchwork marijuana laws can be a confusing mess for patients, businesses and law enforcement officials alike.

Nearly two dozen states now have medical marijuana laws on the books, but laws vary significantly from state to state. And even within states, various arms of government have clashed over how the laws are interpreted and enforced.

The Shattucks were starting up a marijuana dispensary under Michigan's medical marijuana law

In 2014, the Shattucks were starting up a marijuana dispensary under Michigan's medical marijuana law. They worked to ensure every last detail was in full compliance with the law as they understood it: They obtained the permission of the landlord of the building where the dispensary, called the DNA Wellness Center, was to be housed. They went to local planning commission meetings to obtain the proper permits and licenses. They discussed business hours, security measures and even signage requirements with the planning commission.

Annette Shattuck and her family sit inside their home in Port Huron, Michigan. Photo by Ali Lapetina for The Washington Post
Annette Shattuck and her family sit inside their home in Port Huron, Michigan. Photo by Ali Lapetina for The Washington Post

The town building inspector checked the property and approved the signage. The chairman of the planning commission publicly thanked the Shattucks for working within the allowed legal framework. According to court documents, the Shattucks even went so far as to call the local sheriff's Drug Task Force to invite them to inspect the property and verify their compliance with the law.

'We went out of our way to make sure that everything was legit'

"We really went above and beyond," Annette Shattuck said in an interview. "We asked for help. We went out of our way to make sure that everything was legit."

But the Task Force never inspected the property. Instead, acting on an anonymous tip that marijuana was being sold at the location, agents of the St. Clair County Drug Task Force conducted a number of "controlled buys," where informants with medical marijuana cards entered the dispensary and purchased marijuana under the guise of medical use. That gave them enough probable cause to execute a raid.

Michigan's existing voter-approved medical marijuana law doesn't address the legal status of dispensaries, leaving room for conflicting interpretations. The Shattucks' case is an example of what some drug policy experts say are the shortcomings of writing drug policy via ballot initiative. A more carefully considered piece of legislation may have clarified the gray areas that led to the raid on the Shattucks' home and business, for instance.

If my kids are outside in my yard, they run into my house if they see a police officer

Michigan's medical marijuana law, approved by voters in 2008, "is a very confusing statute," according to Stephen Guilliat, chief assistant prosecutor for St. Clair County, where the dispensary was located. "Whoever drafted it was either crazy as a fox, or didn't know what they were doing."

Of the 22 states plus the District of Columbia with medical marijuana laws currently on the books, only Michigan, Montana and Alaska do not allow for medical marijuana to be sold from dispensaries. Patients in those states are, however, allowed to cultivate limited numbers of marijuana plants themselves, according marijuana reform group NORML. Michigan's legislature has been working on legislation that would allow regulated dispensaries, but progress has been slow.

Technically, Shattuck's dispensary should not have been approved by the town planning commission, because the law does not provide for selling marijuana in dispensaries, Guilliat said. "I think the township probably thought they were doing the right thing, without knowing what the law says," he added.

Their home was raided

On July 28, 2014 -- not long after the couple reached out to them to perform a compliance check -- task force agents raided both the dispensary and the Shattucks' home. In addition to charging the Shattucks with a variety of marijuana-related drug crimes, they took a lawnmower, a bicycle, their daughter's birthday money, their marriage certificate and numerous other belongings, according to Annette Shattuck's testimony before the Michigan House last year.

But Judge Daniel Kelly ruled last month that, because the town planning commission had signed off on the dispensary, and because the Shattucks "would not have called [the Drug Task Force] and invited law enforcement to their compassion center for an inspection unless [they] believed in good faith" that they were operating within the bounds of the law, "basic principles of due process preclude prosecution in this case." In short, the government can't prosecute you for operating an "illegal" business if another arm of government has given you the green light on it.

Criminal charges were cleared

Annette Shattuck says "it's beyond exciting" to have the criminal charges cleared. But the tough work of getting her forfeited property back has only just begun.

Annette Shattuck stands next to her family's belongings that were recently returned after a task force raided their home and seized possessions. Photo by Ali Lapetina for The Washington Post
Annette Shattuck stands next to her family's belongings that were recently returned after a task force raided their home and seized possessions. Photo by Ali Lapetina for The Washington Post

Under asset forfeiture laws, police are allowed to seize and keep property suspected of involvement in a crime, regardless of whether the property's owners are ever convicted -- or even charged, in many cases. Michigan's laws are particularly skewed against property owners, according a 2015 report from the Institute for Justice. The nonprofit civil liberties law firm gave Michigan a D- on its forfeiture laws, citing "poor protections for innocent property owners" and policies that allow police to keep up to 100 percent of the proceeds from forfeited property, creating a profit motive for seizing belongings.

Annette Shattuck says that since the charges have been dismissed, the Drug Task Force has returned some of her property. But much of it is damaged. Electronic items are missing power cords and remotes. Her and her husband's phones were smashed. They returned her husband's guns and the safe he stored him in, but they didn't return the key. Two of the kids' insurance cards are missing. Shattuck says her marriage and birth certificates haven't been returned, and since the Task Force does not itemize seized documents in its paperwork, it has no record of taking them in the first place.

"We had plans to get the property back and sell a lot of it to pay for legal fees," she said. "But now we can't."

Sheriff Tim Donnellon, who oversees the drug task force involved in the raid, said his office has "no vendetta" against the Shattucks, and that if any items or components are missing from their returned property, it wasn't intentional. He said the Shattucks should get in touch with the police supervisors overseeing the return. "We'll make things right for her," he added.

Donnellon agrees with Guilliat, the assistant prosecutor, that murky statute language has made things difficult, not only for medical marijuana patients and caregivers but for law enforcement officials as well. "Medical marijuana in Michigan is a nightmare," he said in an interview. "It's really shifting sand. It changes continually. It's really an Achilles' heel for law enforcement."

The tension between strict federal prohibition and state-level legalization is only likely to grow as more states consider changing their marijuana laws this year. "Medical marijuana policy in the United States is putting Americans at risk," the Brookings Institution's John Hudak warned last week. Medical marijuana patients are often "victimized by an unjust, arbitrary, and downright harmful system that hinders access to a clinically proven medical benefit," according to Hudak.

'The deputies kept the children lined up on the couch at gunpoint'

The Shattuck family has experienced this harm firsthand. Beyond the financial burden, the raids have left the family with considerable emotional trauma as well. When the task force raided her home, Shattuck's mother was babysitting her four children, who were all under age 10 at the time. "During the dynamic entry, armed DTF officers wearing ski masks separated the children from their grandmother at gunpoint, shouting at her to get the dog under control or they would shoot it," a court briefing filed by the Shattucks' lawyer alleges. "The deputies kept the children lined up on the couch at gunpoint, refusing even to remove their masks to help calm the kids."

Donnellon called this a "misrepresentation of the incident." During raids like this, he says, it's standard for officers to enter with weapons drawn. "If you come in at a dynamic entry raid, you're going to aim that gun at the parents. Children are going to be sat at a couch. There's absolutely no way in hell would we point a gun at child on a couch," he said in an interview.

He added that his officers typically don't wear ski masks, either. "These guys on the SWAT teams are dads, too," he said.

After the raid, the officers left devastation in their wake, according to the family's account.

"They had Annette's lingerie strewn everywhere," Annette Shattuck's mother said in the briefing. "From the ceiling fan... Boxes and bags of food had been pulled from the cabinets and stepped on with their big boots."

'They took everything'

The description goes on: "They took everything, the birth certificates, the adoption papers. There was nothing that they didn't destroy, they ripped off facings of the cabinets, every picture was off the wall."

Sheriff Donnellon has previously disputed the Shattucks' characterization of the raid, saying that it wasn't as confrontational or disruptive as the Shattucks or their lawyer presented it.

Now, "if my kids are outside in my yard, they run into my house if they see a police officer," Shattuck said. "They're petrified." Her 10-year-old daughter has been in counseling for a year and a half.

The pending charges had made it difficult for the Shattucks to find work. Annette's husband Dale had worked in construction before starting up the dispensary. But since the police seized all his tools, he had difficulty returning to his old line of work. They turned to borrowing money from friends and family. "We owe a lot of people a lot of money," Shattuck said. "We depended on the kindness of relatives. If we didn't have them, we wouldn't have been able to do anything."

'I'm still not innocent in the perception of the community'

Even though all charges against her have been dropped, "I'm still not innocent in the perception of the community," she said. She recently tried to volunteer at an event at her children's school. But school officials told her that simply being charged with a drug felony was enough to bar her from volunteering there.

Guilliat, the assistant prosecutor for St. Clair County, says that knowing what they do now about the case, his office "would have never gotten involved." He added: "Since this case, there have been substantial changes due to the case interpretations of this very confusing statute. We now know more than we did back then -- if it's a close call, we don't do it." Meaning, he said, that "we don't want to put people who think they're doing the right thing -- even if they're not -- through the system."

Annette Shattuck never thought she would be caught up in a forfeiture case like this. She thought that when the charges were dropped, it would be over. She thought that when she finally got her property returned, she could move on with her life.

But in many ways, her ordeal -- and her family's -- will continue. "I was naive," she said. "I thought that's it. But they destroy your property and they return it in pieces. We're going to have to keep moving forward and working to put our lives back together."

- Washington Post

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