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On The Front Lines

Circuit Court Rules in Favor of Police, Declares Helicopter Surveillance, Warrantless Police Raid of Philip Cobbs’ 39-Acre Virginia Property Not Illegal

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — An Albemarle County Circuit Judge has ruled that law enforcement officials did not violate the Fourth Amendment rights of a Virginia property owner when they carried out helicopter surveillance and a warrantless raid on his 39-acre property. In a ruling handed down today, Circuit Court Judge Cheryl V. Higgins denied a motion to suppress evidence filed by attorneys for The Rutherford Institute on behalf of Philip Cobbs, who was charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession after a SWAT team-like raid, aided by military helicopter surveillance and acting without a search warrant, allegedly found two marijuana stalks growing among weeds on his property. A jury trial is scheduled for July 18, 2012.

“Philip Cobbs is merely the latest in a long line of Americans to find themselves swept up in the government's zealous pursuit of marijuana,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “Despite the fact that Philip had no knowledge about the presence of what officials claimed were marijuana plants growing on his property, the Commonwealth had no photographic evidence to back up their claims, and it took the Commonwealth more than a month to issue a citation in the case, Cobbs was still charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession, which carries maximum penalties of 30 days in jail and/or a $500 fine—the circuit court is allowing this case to move forward. This is not at all what I would consider justice.”

Philip Cobbs, a 53-year-old former teacher who cares for his blind, deaf 90-year-old mother, lives on a 39-acre tract of land in eastern Albemarle County that has been in his family since the 1860s. On the morning of July 26, 2011, while spraying the blueberry bushes near his Virginia house, Cobbs noticed a black helicopter circling overhead. After watching the helicopter for several moments, Cobbs went inside to check on his mother. By the time he returned outside, several unmarked police SUVs had driven onto his property, and police in flak jackets, carrying rifles and shouting unintelligibly, had exited the vehicles and were moving toward him. The police officers claimed they had sighted marijuana plants growing on Cobbs’ property and ordered Cobbs to produce them. Distressed and intimidated by the show of force, Cobbs indicated his lack of knowledge about any marijuana plants on his property. In response, one of the police officers radioed up to the helicopter, which then directed the officers to an area in the yard where an oak tree had fallen. Within the limbs of the fallen tree and an adjoining bush were two plants protruding, which the officers claimed were the alleged marijuana plants. The police then asked to search Cobbs’ greenhouse, which turned up nothing more than used tomato seedling containers. Over a month later, Cobbs received a summons charging him with possession of marijuana under Va. Code § 18.2-250.1, which provides that “ownership or occupancy of the premises or vehicle upon or in which marijuana was found shall not create a presumption that such person either knowingly or intentionally possessed such marijuana.”

In October 2011, attorneys with The Rutherford Institute asked the Albemarle County Circuit to find that the officers had conducted an illegal search by entering upon the protected “curtilage” of Cobbs’ residence. In declaring the search to be legal, the court ruled that the curtilaged area was outside the protection of the Fourth Amendment. Affiliate attorneys Paul Belonick and Andrew Sneathern of Sneathern & Lhospital of Charlottesville, Va., assisted The Rutherford Institute in defending Cobbs.


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