When it comes to indoor marijuana cultivation, Florida is one of the nation's leaders. Grow houses have been found in more than two-thirds of Florida's counties, and over 1000 hydroponic operations have been busted in Florida to date. As a result of the drastic increase in marijuana cultivation, Florida has employed multi-agency drug task forces such as HIDTA (High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area) that work alongside the Office of National Drug Control Policy to bust hydroponic operations.
Hydroponic grow houses enable operators to cultivate marijuana plants with higher levels of THC than are typical of plants grown outdoors. Sophisticated hydroponic operations use little to no soil, simulate sunlight by utilizing high intensity lamps, and incorporate irrigation systems of water and chemical fertilizers. Often, these types of operations include specially designed timing systems for lighting and watering, as well as electric meter diversions. Because of the technology used, many cannabis grow houses require little oversight. However, there are cases in which helpers are hired by cultivators to oversee the operations.
The increasing number of arrests relating to marijuana cultivation can be attributed in large part to the tumultuous climate of the economy. The virtually non-existent Florida real estate market has essentially left homes open for cultivation. The rise of abandoned and foreclosed homes in Florida combined with the high level of unemployment has created a perfect storm for cultivation and hydroponic operations.
Not all hydroponic operations are found within foreclosed or abandoned homes. Many such operations are run in rental homes. Growers often rent homes from landlords as tenants, typically looking for homes with large attic space to accommodate the technology that will be used. If attic space is sparse, growers have been found to cut holes through walls, or run their operations underneath the houses in order to provide adequate ventilation for both the high intensity lamps and the dampness caused by the irrigation systems. Heat reducing curtains and blinds, concrete subfloors that absorb heat, foam insulation, and underground exhaust systems are also typical installations and modifications found within grow houses.
Landlords provide an invaluable resource to law enforcement because landlords often have the contractual right under the lease to inspect their rental properties upon giving merely 24 hour notice to renters. If a landlord enters a home and has reason to believe that a hydroponic operation is being run in the home, either because he observed hydroponic materials or noticed other unusual modifications or damage to the home (including mold), the landlord may be able to provide the police with the evidence they need to obtain a search warrant. Additionally, landlords and homeowners have incentive to report their findings to the police because Florida law allows charges to be brought against a homeowner or landlord who knowingly owns a house being used to grow marijuana, even if he or she does not live there. Reporting hydroponic operations immediately upon discovery to law enforcement provides homeowners and landlords a safe haven from prosecution.
Because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Kyllo v. United States, 533 US 27 (2001) that the use of infrared technology and thermal imaging to detect heat coming from suspected grow houses is intrusive on Constitutional rights and therefore illegal, law enforcement agencies have had to turn to other forms of investigation to locate hydroponic operations. The police have begun relying upon public reporting of unusual activities relating to the homes: uncommon amounts and types of trash around the home, added electrical equipment, exhaust emissions, unusual warmth around the house, smells coming from the house, et cetera. Many of these types of operations are discovered by law enforcement via anonymous tipsters and informants.
Other factors that alert law enforcement of the potential existence of a grow house may be unnoticeable by the general public. However, high power consumption and unusually large power bills (especially when the small number of people alleged to reside in the home is taken into consideration) are often the keys to discovering a hydroponic operation. Because of this, electricians and power companies are another important resource for the police. FPL can monitor spikes in energy use and report unusually high electric bills to law enforcement agencies. In addition, the very electricians who are paid by growers to bypass electric meters are often informants.
In conjunction with other methods of investigation, police officers have begun utilizing what is known as "knock and talks" at suspected grow houses, wherein officers attempt to speak with homeowners or renters without warrants. Aside from the factors previously mentioned that generally alert law enforcement to the existence of a grow house, officers have been known to wait outside of hydroponic stores and follow those who exit the stores home. Once they have this knowledge to tip them off, officers will either undergo long-term surveillance of suspected grow houses or immediately initiate the knock and talk. If they do not have sufficient evidence to obtain a warrant, they can and will try to gain access to a house by knocking on the door and simply asking whoever answers the door if the officers can come inside to talk for a minute. People who are not fully aware of their rights are often caught in this trap, either revealing their operations by cracking open the door enough for the officers to see inside or by letting the officers inside themselves. Once officers have either witnessed the operation first hand or obtained sufficient evidence to obtain a search warrant, they may enter the suspected grow house and seize and destroy all hydroponic equipment found, so long as photographs or videos of the evidence are taken. Videos and pictures of the evidence are now allowed to replace the actual evidence itself in courtroom presentation, making preservation of the evidence unnecessary pursuant to Florida Statute 893.10. Police officers who destroy the equipment are immune from civil liability.
Possession of cannabis (less than 20 grams) is a misdemeanor in the State of Florida. However, such charges can quickly transform into felonies when hydroponic operations come into the picture, under Florida Statute 893.1351, the Marijuana Grow House Eradication Act. Until recently, Florida law charged growers whose operations had more than 300 plants with a drug trafficking charge. Now, only 25 plants are necessary to constitute prima facie evidence that the cannabis is intended for sale or distribution. A grower with 25 plants can be charged with a second degree felony which carries with it a maximum sentence of 15 years in Florida State Prison. Grow houses that are found to have been the homes of a child further transform those same charges into first degree felonies, with a maximum sentence of 30 years in Florida State Prison. Florida's new grow house laws are even tougher than the Federal standard, which allows up to 100 plants before a trafficking charge can be pursued. Florida statutes, specifically section 893.135, define marijuana plants as seedling or cuttings with noticeable "root formation." Thus, even dead or already-harvested cannabis plants are figured into the total plant count by law enforcement. In addition to prison time, fines included with such charges can be in the tens of thousands, and they can be enhanced if the accused is a prior offender.
Other Ways Grow Houses are Discovered:
•Long-term police surveillance
•Hydroponic Store surveillance
•Tips from "friends" and/or significant others
•Reports from FPL
•Knock and Talks
•Operations in plain view
Key Grow House Indicators:
•Spikes in power usage
•Unusual warmth around the house
•Odors from the house
•Reports of unusual activities
•People coming and going
•Uncommon amounts and types of trash
•Added electrical equipment
For the Florida statute chapter regarding marijuana cultivation and penalties, see §893.135, Fla. Stat. (2010).
Copyright (c) 2010, Law Office of Roger P. Foley
The Law Offices of Roger P. Foley,P.A.