Federal Judge Rules in Favor of Government in Controversial Aurora Marijuana Grow Operation Forfeiture Case

AURORA, Colo. – A federal judge recently ruled that an Aurora couple who used their home to illegally grow marijuana must surrender the property to the government. The judge concluded that this forfeiture does not violate the constitutional provision against excessive fines.

The U.S. Department of Justice filed a petition in 2019 to take possession of the couple’s home, located in the 23000 block of East Wagontrail Avenue in Aurora. Law enforcement had previously discovered 828 marijuana plants being grown at the residence, along with evidence of illegal electricity diversion.

Jia Bao Yao, the individual responsible for the illicit cultivation operation, pleaded guilty in state court. His girlfriend, Amy Chen, also resided in the house with their children.

Upon facing the civil forfeiture case for their home, Yao and Chen invoked the Eighth Amendment’s protection against excessive fines. They argued that the home’s value, which was just under $500,000, far exceeded the maximum fine warranted by their criminal conduct.

Attorney Sean M. McDermott, representing Yao, emphasized that the substance involved was not one that posed risks to the neighborhood or could be manufactured in a lab, like fentanyl or methamphetamine. McDermott also highlighted that marijuana is legal under state law and even promoted as a state attraction, drawing a comparison to Colorado’s craft beer industry.

In September, U.S. Magistrate Judge Scott T. Varholak recommended the government’s request for forfeiture, stating that a connection between the house and criminal activity had been established. Varholak deemed Yao’s reference to state law irrelevant, as he had exceeded Colorado’s legal cultivation limit.

Varholak also pointed out that the maximum fine for a federal criminal conviction based on the extent of the grow operation would be $5 million. Accordingly, he determined that a fine of $489,205.09 – the property’s value – would not be grossly disproportionate to the offense committed.

Despite Yao and Chen’s objections, U.S. District Court Senior Judge William J. Martínez upheld Varholak’s conclusions in a Dec. 21 order. Martínez emphasized that the forfeiture of the home constituted a penalty significantly lesser than the potential maximum fine. Importantly, it was deemed valid even without the presence of federal criminal charges.

According to recent reports, in the fiscal year 2022, the federal government deposited $1.7 billion into the Asset Forfeiture Fund, with $28.4 million originating from Colorado. Scholars have raised concerns that asset forfeiture can shift the focus of policing from public safety issues to revenue generation through enforcement.

In summary, a federal judge has ruled that an Aurora couple must forfeit their home to the government after illegally growing marijuana. The judge determined that this forfeiture does not violate the constitutional prohibition on excessive fines.