UPLAND — A woman alleges that in shutting down a medical marijuana dispensary in January, police Chief Brian Johnson and another Upland police officer locked her and a security guard inside the pot shop for about an hour.
The move was so upsetting, she has hired an attorney and is considering suing.
“What they did was not right,” said Helen Nguyen, who worked as a volunteer at the now-closed Secret Stash dispensary on North Second Avenue. “Maybe Upland doesn’t want medical marijuana there and they wanted to scare us.”
Medicinal marijuana dispensaries are banned from operating in the city through a city ordinance. In January, Upland police shut down four illegal medical marijuana dispensaries over two days, which may have included Secret Stash. Although police did not name the dispensaries it closed, officials at the time said three of them were inside the same strip mall on Second Avenue.
Nguyen, a 33-year-old Huntington Beach resident, said she was on duty the afternoon of Jan. 19 when two Upland officers entered through the front door and spoke with a security guard standing behind a small window in the lobby.
“Our security guard told me the Upland Police Department wants us to close,” Nguyen said, adding that she complied.
Nguyen said three other volunteers, along with about a half-dozen clients, left while she and the security guard finished some last-minute tasks in back of the dispensary.
That’s when someone who appeared to be Johnson allegedly latched bolt locks at the top and bottom of the front door. Nguyen said that prevented them from leaving. According to surveillance video from the scene, the first officer was joined by another police officer.
Nguyen said the officers made no effort to determine if anyone was still inside.
Upland police referred comments to City Attorney Jim Markman. As of Monday afternoon, Markman said he had not seen the claim and didn’t have all the details.
“If she’s in a back room, you still have to show someone was negligent in locking her in,” he said.
Nguyen, a single mother of an 8-year-old boy and 6-year-old girl, worried she wouldn’t be able to get out in time to care for her children.
“Thank God I had the security guard with me,” she said. “He calmed me down.”
Eventually, after about an hour, Nguyen was able to reach a Secret Stash volunteer, who unlocked the door.
Matthew Pappas, a Long Beach attorney representing Nguyen, provided surveillance video of the incident to this publication.
“You don’t lock a door from the outside when that is the only entry and exit without checking if everyone is out of there,” Pappas said. “If it is done on purpose, it’s false imprisonment. At the least, it’s gross negligence — but it appears to be intentional.”
Pappas plans to file a notice of claim against the city of Upland and the officers this week. A claim is often a precursor to a lawsuit.
“My fear was not knowing whether I would be able get out or not,” Nguyen said. “I was panicking about whether I was going to be arrested after being told to close the dispensary.”
Markman wondered whether Nguyen had access to a cellphone, whether she truly had no way out.
There’s a reason for police locking down a business — so that no one comes in and tries to steal property, Markman said.
“The skeletal facts don’t seem to me like they’re actionable,” he said.
Markman has seen claims for false imprisonment before, he added. Those followed situations when someone was handcuffed and placed in the back of a police car, waiting out a huge incident.
But if someone didn’t see them, Markman said, then it’s most likely “just an error, and I don’t know if there’s negligence there.”
Despite the city’s ban, Upland has had to deal with a rash of illegal medical marijuana dispensaries. Between 2014 and August 2016, Upland police had shuttered 24 illegal dispensaries.
Earlier this year, Johnson told the council the police department was finding it increasingly challenging to seek criminal prosecutions for illegal dispensaries.
The Drug Enforcement Administration, a federal agency, essentially has a hands-off policy, not only because of Proposition 215, a 1996 initiative that allowed medical marijuana use, but also because of 2016’s Prop. 64. Meanwhile, at the state level, the District Attorney’s Office has been reluctant to take these cases to trial, Johnson told the council Jan. 24.
Upland was denied twice by two different judges when it tried to obtain a search warrant for cultivation and serve a civil subpoena.
Instead, authorities now focus on going through an administrative citation process to go after property owners. If they don’t pay, then the city can attach a tax lien.