Prison or probation for pot-growing family?
SEATTLE -- Eight Western Washington marijuana growers -- including four Vietnamese refugees in their 60s -- could spend years in prison if federal prosecutors get their way in coming weeks.
Requesting the shortest standard sentences considered under federal drug laws, prosecutors are expected to ask that a 63-year-old man and his 60-year-old wife each be sentenced to three years in federal prison for their part in growing more than one ton of marijuana.
The couple and their six codefendants -- family members by blood or marriage -- were among the dozens of people targeted in a 2011 state-federal sweep aimed at indoor marijuana grows in southwest Washington. The first family members are expected to be sentenced Monday by a federal judge in Tacoma.
The eight facing sentencing Monday and in coming days were among more than 50 people charged following a three-year investigation into marijuana "grow houses" supplying high-quality pot to the region. Defense attorneys for for the couple -- wife Hay Thi Le and husband Hau Van Nguyen -- and the other defendants contend the prison sentences requested by prosecutors are a waste of tax dollars and wildly out of step with public sentiment regarding marijuana.
Following a tip from King County investigators, Clark County Sheriff's Office detectives and ultimately federal agents launched the operation in early 2009. Having spent more than two years watching houses, cars and dumpsites associated with the growers, officers conducted one of the largest coordinated raids in state history on Oct. 13, 2011, just more than a year before Washington residents voted to legalize marijuana.
In an operation dubbed "Green Gang" by investigators, officers and agents searched 56 homes around Western Washington, seizing thousands of marijuana plants. Of the 94 suspects, 55 were subsequently prosecuted; 21 of those were indicted in federal court, while 15 defendants saw the charges against them dismissed.
Prosecution comes as marijuana policy in flux
While nearly all the defendants prosecuted in state court received jail sentences measured in days, those who landed in the federal system will likely spend years behind bars.
Attorneys for several of the "Green Gang" defendants note that Washington laws on marijuana changed dramatically during the years in which the prosecution has been ongoing.
While marijuana remains banned under federal law, Washington voters in November passed an initiative meant to legalize the cultivation, sale and possession of marijuana. Possession of user-quantity amounts of marijuana is no longer illegal under state law, and state regulators are working on a system to grow and sell the drug.
Federal prosecutors on the case claim the growers endangered the neighborhoods where they grew pot. Writing the court, Assistant U.S. Attorney Patricia Lally went so far as to assert the marijuana Nguyen, Le and others grew may have launched children down the path to drug addiction.
"No one will ever know how many people experimented with marijuana thanks to the (their) long-time business," Lally said in a memo asking that several defendants in their 60s be sentenced to years in prison. "No one will ever know how many teenagers became users of marijuana because Hau Nguyen and his family made it available."
Defense attorney Thomas Campbell said the 2012 vote shows Washingtonians aren't all that worried about marijuana. Campbell went on to say the stiff penalties suggested by federal rules undercut citizens' faith in the justice system.
"Attitudes have changed about marijuana usage," Campbell told the court. "Imposition of a lengthy sentence for these defendants will not promote respect for the law. To the contrary, many people will see the expenditure of tax dollars to imprison marijuana defendants as wasted money."
Washington marijuana 'some of the best,' detective says
Whatever the larger issues at work in the drug market, the scheme at issue was simple enough.
The growers nabbed in the "Green Gang" investigation set up marijuana grows in Western Washington homes - "grow houses" in police jargon. The marijuana they grew was of higher quality than that shipped north from Mexico, and apparently found plenty of customers in the region.
A group of family and close friends with ties to Le and Nguyen rented houses in Southwest Washington and refitted them as marijuana grows.
The growers lied to property owners and the electric utility when renting the homes and setting up power, Lally told the court. They also rewired the houses and cut holes in walls and ceilings to vent the grow rooms, which they re-floored with linoleum. The intense heat and humidity left many of the homes moldy.
Investigators contacted buyers as far away as Montana and Wyoming who had purchased pot from the "Green Gang" growers. In court documents, Clark County Sheriff's Office Detective Jeff Brockus noted Washington has become well-known for supplying marijuana as production moves south from British Columbia.
"It has resulted in the Northwest gaining recognition and a reputation as being responsible for producing some of the best marijuana in the country," Brockus told the court.
While the charges against a dozen other federal defendants remain pending, eight growers with family ties to Le and Nguyen are slated to be sentenced in coming weeks.
Lally, who prosecuted the case alongside Assistant U.S. Attorney Marc Perez, has asked that Nguyen and Le be sentenced to three years in federal prison. Prosecutors are seeking 2 1/2 year sentences against three other members of the Nguyen family, as well as shorter sentences against three more members.
Attorneys for the defendants have asked that U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle sentence their clients to either probation or greatly reduced prison terms.
Describing the grows as the "family business," Lally acknowledged that several of the eight defendants felt pressured into the marijuana trade. Even the most stringent sentence requested by prosecutors is the shortest presented in the federal sentencing guidelines.
Nonetheless, Lally suggested those involved in these grows hurt the community by producing marijuana, a drug recently made legal under Washington state law but still banned by federal law.
"Growing marijuana for profit is a dangerous business," Lally told the court. "The violence surrounding the drug trade, including indoor grow operations is well known and is not uncommon."
Writing the court, defense attorney Wayne Fricke argued Hay Thi Le and others were pushed into the drug trade by an unscrupulous landlord.
Fricke described Le as a "farmhand" who made little money from the marijuana grows. The defense attorney disputed prosecutors' claims that his client prompted others to grow marijuana and argued she should receive a much reduced sentence.
Nguyen's attorney, Thomas Weaver, noted that no guns were found in any of the homes associated with Nguyen or Le. To characterize Nguyen as a kind of mob boss, Weaver continued, is to misunderstand the nature of the marijuana grows.
"This operation began as a small medical marijuana grow operation and, while it did get larger, never took on the violent flavor," Weaver told the court, asking that Nguyen be sentenced to the shortest term considered by the court.
Defense: Racism contributed to prosecution
Nguyen, Le and most of their codefendants are refugees from Vietnam and U.S. citizens. Nearly all of those targeted in the investigation are of Vietnamese heritage, prompting complaints by defense attorneys that their clients were the victims of race-based policing. Investigators contend the organizations behind the marijuana grows are made up primarily of Vietnamese immigrants and their children.
Attorneys for the 21 federal defendants dispute investigators' allegations that Vietnamese growers are responsible for a significant part of the American marijuana trade.
Arrest statistics provided by the Drug Enforcement Administration show about 3 percent of DEA arrestees during the time in question were of Asian or Pacific Island heritage. Nationwide, people of Asian or Pacific Island heritage accounted for less than 1 percent of all drug arrests.
The defense faulted investigators for injecting ethnicity into affidavits to the court, in which subjects were described at various points only as "Asian" men without further explanation as to why police were interested in them. In a failed attempt to have the fruits of the searches thrown out of court, defense attorneys for the federal defendants described the lead detective's conduct as racist.
"People of Vietnamese origin are entitled to every bit as much protection as any other citizen," federal public defender Jerome Kuh said in a 2012 memo. Kuh went on to suggest racism tied to the case was "infecting the justice system."
Older growers face judge Monday
Among those facing federal prison are husband and wife Sinh Ngo and Tuyet Thi Dang, naturalized U.S. citizens now in their 60s. Ngo and Dang have already spent seven months in federal custody in the matter.
Ngo, a former fishing boat captain, fled Vietnam in 1981 with Dang. They lived as refugees for a year in the region before moving to the United States; as recently as two years ago Ngo made his living as a landscaper.
Ngo's attorney noted his client used the money he made growing marijuana to pay bills and support his family. Attorneys for both Ngo and Dang asked that they be sentenced to probation; they are related to Nguyen and Le by marriage, according to court papers.
The Nguyen family growers are scheduled to be sentenced later in May and early June. Charges against two other groups of defendants facing similar allegations remain largely unresolved.
Ngo, his daughter and two other defendants are scheduled to be sentenced Monday by Settle at the federal courthouse in Tacoma. Le and Nguyen are set to be sentenced May 30, while Dang and the other defendants are expected to face a judge in coming weeks.