Marijuana plants grow in full sun in Pueblo County on Sept. 3, 2016. Pueblo County is one of the few places in Colorado that allows for outdoor commercial cannabis cultivation. (Vince Chandler, The Denver Post)

Veteran sues police after SWAT team raided his legal Colorado marijuana grow

A former special forces infantryman, who was awarded a Bronze Star and uses marijuana to treat PTSD after tours to Iraq and Bosnia, has sued the Fountain police SWAT team after officers raided his legal marijuana greenhouse.

Eli Olivas and his girlfriend Marisela Chavez sued the city of Fountain and Fountain police Sgt. Matthew Racine, claiming the city failed to properly train its police to investigate pot cases in a state where it’s legal to grow marijuana.

The lawsuit was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Denver by attorney Terrence Johnson. Olivas and Chavez seek compensatory damages of more than $100,000. Olivas, a paramedic, also wants his guns returned: an AK-47 rifle, a 5.56 millimeter Sig Sauer rifle and a Glock 17, court records show Police confiscated the weapons but haven’t returned them, the lawsuit says.

Fountain Police Chief Chris Heberer said the department had a valid search warrant signed by a judge.

“At the end of the day he was safe, the public was safe and we were safe,” Heberer said.

Olivas is a former U.S. Army Special Forces staff sergeant, infantryman, medic and combat veteran. Besides the Bronze Star, he earned numerous other service medals. He also was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder linked to combat.

Olivas is a registered medical marijuana patient with a permit to grow up to 99 marijuana plants for his own treatment of PTSD. He was growing 18 marijuana plants behind a locked, 6-foot privacy fence. The plants were further enclosed in a greenhouse walled with opaque glass.

At 6 a.m. on July 22, 2016, a Fountain SWAT team raided Olivas’ home with a warrant for marijuana, firearms and ammunition. They used a flash-bang device. The warrant was based on weak and untrustworthy evidence, the lawsuit says.Using a flash-bang explosion during the raid was part of a “blatant display of violence and abuse of authority,” the lawsuit says.

“Don’t shoot,” yelled Olivas, dressed only in underwear, when he saw SWAT officers pointing assault rifles at him with fingers on triggers. Police handcuffed Olivas and Chavez, who was wearing only a nightgown, the lawsuit says.

“The unconscionable aggression of the police would have traumatized any person, but given plaintiff Olivas’ history serving his country in combat, it affected him exponentially more severely and it has caused a relapse of his PTSD symptoms,” the lawsuit says.

The officers made Olivas and Chavez sit within a few feet of the exhaust pipe on a running police vehicle. Chavez had a prior shoulder injury and told the officers, but they handcuffed her anyway causing further physical injuries, the lawsuit says.

“There was no evidence that she committed a crime, she posed no immediate threat to the safety of the officers and she did not actively resist arrest or attempt to evade arrest by flight,” the lawsuit says.

Olivas and Chavez began to experience symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning including difficulty seeing, faintness, nausea and headaches. With his medical training, Olivas knew the dangerous signs of poisoning, but his request to be moved away from the fumes was refused. He stood up to get fresh air and was ordered to sit down.

The officers destroyed one of Olivas’ gates to enter the fence. They issued a summons and complaint for an illegal marijuana grow even though Olivas had a legal permit, the lawsuit says. The summons was never filed in court, but Olivas still was forced to hire an attorney.

“At all times relevant herein, the individual defendants acted intentionally, willfully and wantonly, maliciously, and with reckless disregard for and deliberate indifference to the plaintiff’s rights,” the lawsuit says.

The episode involving Olivas wasn’t an isolated event. It was symptomatic of Fountain’s failure to train officers how to investigate marijuana cases, the lawsuit says.

All the officers had to do was check whether Olivas had a legal permit to grow marijuana, the lawsuit says.

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