by Jessica Pishko of Posse Comitatus
On August 5, 2021, according to a civil complaint filed in federal court, Riverside County Sergeant Julio Olguin and around 20 deputies dressed in green fatigues and tactical gear used a battering ram to break down the side door of a home in Lake Elsinore, a bedroom community in Riverside County, California.
The house belonged to a retired couple, Mrs. H and Mr. W (who prefer to keep their full identities out of the media). No one was inside, and the deputies spent hours breaking down interior doors and tossing the couple’s belongings around the house.
Their goal? To find that ganja—the green monster, that dank. Why did they think it was there? Well, the elderly couple used solar panels to reduce their overall power use. Low power use is sometimes used by law enforcement as a tell for indoor marijuana grows based on an assumption that the growers are stealing power.
(Anyone who has watched television knows that high power consumption is also used as a signal for marijuana grows. Presumably, we are mere months away from average power use being a suspicious attempt to hide too-high or too-low useage.)
When the search of the Lyda Street home proved unfruitful, the deputies went to a house on Carrousel Court, also owned by the couple. Mrs. H was present when Sergeant Olguin knocked on the door of house two and told her that they thought she was illegally growing marijuana. Seeing their uniforms, she assumed they were soldiers and let them inside, believing there was no other option.
While the team found no evidence of a crime, made no arrests, and seized no evidence, they also did not admit a mistake.
Here’s the funny thing. Sergeant Olguin had no search warrant. According to a lawsuit filed by the couple, the law enforcement officer admitted as much after invading their two homes. There was also no paperwork filed, not even an incident report, despite the manpower and hours of nearly two-dozen heavily armed officers.
“This was a very strange and frightening incident,” Mrs. H said, according to a press release. “We did nothing to deserve this, and it made us feel unsafe in our own homes.”
Despite efforts by many community and progressive groups to reduce the use of military-style raids by law enforcement—particularly after police killed Breonna Taylor during a no-knock raid we now know was precipitated by a lie—the tactic is still a common aspect of policing, particularly as part of the so-called “war on drugs.”
Note: There are a variety of ways to refer to no-knock or “quick-knock” raids. Since none of these are official, I use the terms “military-style” or “SWAT-style” raids to include all police enforcement that includes military-type equipment like special uniforms, battering rams, flash bangs, etc.
The recent public revelations that law enforcement officers lied when they obtained the search warrant which led to their killing of Breonna Taylor are still fresh. A one-time police detective “admitted that she had known there was not enough evidence to support approving the warrant,” according to the New York Times. The detective has since pled guilty to conspiracy. Breonna Taylor is still dead though.
The Lake Elsinore police invasion did not result in anyone’s death. Yet, in the case of Mrs. H and Mr. W, law enforcement officers lied about pretending to have good cause to search although they did not.
Because the police can use such extreme violence, judges and prosecutors – as well as the general public and media – rely on them to tell the truth. Yet, we know that often they do not.
(The Riverside Sheriff’s Office said they could not comment on settled lawsuits.)
Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco won a second term even though he admitted he was a member of the Oath Keepers and attended a questionable special sheriff training course at the Claremont Institute. Bianco has also spent an extraordinary amount of money on military-style equipment, including $700,000 on a “mobile command post.”
It seems unusual that Bianco would use this firepower against an elderly couple who are trying to stave off (at least a little) climate change and save some money.
But military readiness is a hallmark of Bianco’s style in running the Riverside department. On top of the command center, Bianco has cranked up the battle rhetoric to show, for example, his department’s readiness for policing schoolchildren. (Fun fact: Bianco was never in the military.)
He’s also shown his willingness to arm his constituents by dispensing concealed carry permits liberally as well as his eagerness to support anti-vax and other far-right causes. (Bianco has touted his diet as keeping him healthy, eschewing the COVID vaccine.)
Bianco and sheriffs before him have taken particular pride in Riverside’s SWAT team. In a Facebook promotional video, the chorus of “Whose" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen> Side Are You On” plays as SWAT team members run, duck, shoot, and otherwise perform military-style moves. According to the department: “The RSO SWAT Team was formed in 1980 following the historic Norco Bank Robbery. Since that time, we have evolved from a collateral duty into a full-time function.”
In a recent podcast, Bianco said SWAT was “underutilized,” and praised the leader of his Special Enforcement Bureau (which encompasses SWAT) for being “proactive” and operating around “obstacles,” e.g. state restrictions on SWAT.
While people being severely injured or killed during military-style raids at least draws some attention, it’s worth noting that when victims of such raids experience property damage, civil lawsuits, their only recourse, often provide little recompense. And, of course, no one can compensate for feeling unsafe in your own home.
In this case, the couple settled out-of-court for $136,000, not much for a sheriff’s office with an over $930 million budget, but a sign that the claim was legitimate.
(Bianco asked for $49 million more from the Board, hiked his rate for policing contract cities, and received at least $4.6 million in COVID relief from the federal government – money he is accused of misusing.)
Almost half of the Riverside County budget goes to the sheriff and the district attorney’s office.
Bianco still insists that he is “underfunded” to explain the department’s notoriously slow deputy response times. Nevertheless, he had enough money and manpower to justify raiding a retired couple’s home, then tearing it up for hours, all over solar panels.
But the most important lesson from cases like these – the ones that result from the workaday use of police power – is that law enforcement lies routinely, not just in serious cases.
The Riverside deputies did not lie to a judge to get a search warrant, they simply skipped the step of going to a judge for a search warrant entirely.
Why was Chad Bianco’s “select group of elite personnel” allowed to break into someone’s home without a valid warrant, and there is no real consequence? How many other times has this happened? We don’t know because most people do not file a lawsuit.
As for the Riverside Sheriff’s Office, officials said they could not comment on settled lawsuits.
If you have not subscribed to Jessica Pishko’s stellar Posse Comitatus on SubStack, where this story originally appeared, please give yourself the gift of doing so. At WLA we are ardent fans and plan to run lots more of Jessica’s work. But, if you subscribe to this reader-supported publication, you’ll get everything right away.
Also, Pishko, has two other stories published two other publications this week, both of which you might want to check out.
In Bolts, she wrote about how Sheriff Mark Lamb of Pinal County, along with other far-right sheriffs, HAVE partnered with True the Vote to “police” elections. Community members are concerned
For Democracy Docket, Pishko writes further about “the danger of allowing sheriffs who support the Big Lie to police elections.”
The photo at top of page, which is courtesy of Jessica Pishko, shows a “quiet neighborhood in Riverside County, CA, before sheriff’s deputies broke down the front door, and some interior doors for good measure, looking for a marijuana grow.”