Cannabis farm | Adobe stock photo
By Royal Calkins
The recent criminal case against Salinas businessman and cannabis cultivator Mike Hackett took an odd twist when it reached the appellate court. It seems that someone unexpected had been listening in when Hackett called an associate and popped off about his arrest.
In case you don’t know the name, Hackett owns the Casa Sorrento restaurant, used to own the Hacienda restaurant and another place or two. His family’s biggest business, however, is Riverview Farms, 20 acres of greenhouses south of Salinas containing row after row of lovely, legal pot plants. This story, however, is about a tiny bit of cocaine. And that phone call to a friend.
It was back in July of 2017 in Hollister. It was the week of the city’s big motorcycle event. Hackett was there, hanging out with friends.
According to the San Benito County Sheriff’s Department, a couple of undercover detectives were watching while Hackett and friends were in line waiting to get into a bar. They said they saw him use a credit card to scoop some powder from a baggie and offered snorts to a couple of guys and a woman.
One of the undercovers quickly approached one of Hackett’s friends and said, “That must be some good shit.” The watery-eyed fellow, coughing, replied simply “Yeah.”
Hackett was arrested a few minutes later. The sheriff’s people said they found less than a fifth of a gram, less than $50 worth, in his pocket. Hackett said it was a tiny chunk the size of a grain of rice.
Later that month, San Benito authorities searched Hackett’s Salinas house.They found a small amount of pot, some guns and ammo, about $750,000 in cash, but no cocaine.
At a preliminary hearing three months later, three people who had been in line with Hackett in Hollister, Daniel Bamberger, John Moore and Amanda Appling, denied that Hackett had given them anything. The judge ordered Hackett to stand trial anyway on a felony charge of transporting and furnishing cocaine.
Three months after that, Hackett pleaded no contest to the felony with the understanding that he would be put on probation.
But that didn’t end things.
A month later, Hackett returned to court and asked to withdraw his no contest plea so he could challenge the charge. He claimed that his original attorney, Brian Worthington, hadn’t adequately represented him. He said Worthington had pressured him into a plea and hadn’t fully explained that he was admitting to distributing cocaine and not simply transporting it.
(According to court papers, Worthington told the court he had explained the plea and the ramifications to Hackett repeatedly, verbally and in writing.)
Because the felony conviction could jeopardize his cannabis permits in Monterey County, Hackett transferred ownership of Riverview Farms to his daughters and he is now only an adviser. According to the company website, it is now the largest “female-minority owned” cannabis operation in the world.
When Monterey County officials legalized indoor marijuana cultivation, Hackett was in excellent standing because he had purchased dozens of greenhouse formerly used for flower production. With his background in farming, Riverview became one of the first legal pot operations in the county and it soon became the biggest.
The San Benito court gave Hackett a suspended jail sentence of 120 days and put him on felony probation. He responded by hiring new counsel, Larry Biegel, and appealing the court’s refusal to let him change his plea.
He should have saved his money.
The thrust of his appeal was that he may have transported that speck of cocaine but that he had never furnished the drug to anyone, no how, no way.
But the 6th District Court of Appeal ruled on Nov. 26 that his appeal had no merit because the justices had already heard him admitting to furnishing cocaine.
That’s because the prosecution had produced a tape of a phone call that Hackett had made the day after his Hollister arrest. A call to the target of a federal wiretap, someone who also been in Hollister the day before.
According to the appellate decision written by Justice Allison Danner, Hackett told the other person on the phone that he had been arrested after giving him and the others “a bump on the card.”
“Do you know when we were f-ing standing in line and I gave you that f-ing bump on the card?”
The word “bump” isn’t defined in the Penal Code but it means a snort, a dose, a hit. What it also means, Justice Danner wrote, was that the earlier ruling by the trial court stands.
Hackett and his lawyer, Biegel, said Wednesday that the amount of cocaine involved would have resulted in a misdemeanor charge in almost any court outside San Benito County. Biegel said the San Benito authorities apparently thought they had come upon a big fish, seemingly not realizing that Riverview is totally legit and permitted like many other marijuana operations in Monterey County.
In a phone interview, Hackett said San Benito County investigators and prosecutors pursued him “like I was some cartel guy but that’s not who I am. I’m a farmer, a legit guy with no criminal record, no arrests, nothing but traffic tickets.”
His lawyer said deputies found so much cash at Hackett’s house only because the marijuana business, even the legal marijuana business, is a cash business under federal law. The money was later returned to Hackett, which would not have happened if the authorities felt it was the fruit of illegal activities.
Hackett said he plans to appeal the November ruling,
Efforts to determine whose phone had been tapped by the feds have proved unsuccessful so far.
Correction: This article originally misidentified the late Arthur Danner as the appellate court justice who wrote the opinion. It was written by Allison Danner.
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