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Pot evidence being dried, bagged and saved for trial; three post bond

The marijuana plants seized in a rural Hubbard County bust two weeks ago sit outside with grow lights, humidifiers and other equipment used in the sophisticated growing operation. (Submitted photo)

In court cases, there's a dastardly principle called "spoliation of evidence." Attorneys dread it.

It essentially means the evidence seized in a case has deteriorated, been damaged in an evidence room, has disappeared or spoiled over time. It can result in a case being tossed for lack of evidence.

So how does law enforcement, in the case of 97 healthy marijuana plants growing and recently confiscated, keep this type of evidence fresh? Hire a Master Gardener until trial?

Hubbard County Chief Deputy Jerry Tatro is the county's evidence officer.

"Have you ever seen his garage?" asked attorney and county commissioner Greg Larson. "He's got every tool in place. It's immaculate. He keeps the evidence room the same way."

Tatro said the county is meticulously processing the plants.

"This new building is great," he said. "It has a good air infiltration system. It pulls the moisture out of the plants" and doesn't send a marijuana vapor seeping through the air vents.

He said the plants are already dried. The leaves are being stripped off and put in open paper bags.

"We don't seal them so it won't mold," he said. "We'll transport them to the BCA in those bags."

Photos of the marijuana growing operation near Two Inlets that was raided last week, were released by the Hubbard County Sheriff's Department Thursday. They show bushy marijuana plants growing hydroponically.

County Attorney Don Dearstyne said he could not comment directly on the case, but in past pot cases, he said the procedure is to get the evidence to a BCA lab for analysis.

"We don't care if the plants die," he said.

Because the BCA is swamped with analyzing meth cases, the lab won't accept marijuana for analysis until a trial is imminent, as many cases settle in plea bargains and it would be a waste of time.

The leaf stripping is necessary because the stems and seeds, which don't have THC content, can't be considered in prosecution. That can drastically alter the weight of the evidence; dried marijuana is considerably lighter in weight than a healthy growing plant. THC is the hallucinogenic component of marijuana, only present in leaves.

Dearstyne said he has had to amend charges in at least one case in the past after the evidence dried out and lost weight.

The four defendants charged in the Hubbard County case face Third Degree Possession charges, meaning there was at least 10 kilograms of pot on the premises.

For children of the '60s, a kilo weighs 2.2 pounds, so 22 pounds of pot will have to remain by trial time to sustain the charges. Otherwise, the Minnesota statutes mandate only Fifth Degree Possession charges, a difference of 15 years in prison.

Three of the defendants in the case have posted bond. Just this week, the alleged ringleader, James Bernard Young, 68, was able to post his $100,000 bond through a bail company.

That means he likely had to put up at least $10,000 in cash. His current whereabouts are unknown.

The criminal complaint states Young has a 2002 federal drug conviction.

His wife, 62-year-old Talora Ann Smith, told Judge Robert Tiffany she had to call friends in Massachusetts to post her $5,000 bail.

Molly Riewer is also out on bond. The 22-year-old from Osage was allegedly Smith's caretaker and does not have a criminal record. Smith said she is pacemaker dependent, has a seizure disorder, and used a walker in court earlier this week.

The remaining defendant, 48-year-old Tyler Englund, remains in jail. He, too, has previous drug convictions.

Because seven state and federal agencies are involved in the case, Dearstyne told Judge Tiffany it will take several weeks to get all the reports in, to move the cases along in the court system.

All four defendants are scheduled for omnibus hearings next week. Those evidentiary hearings frequently get postponed if both sides don't have all the evidence.