months ago based on a very questionable “animal cruelty” complaint. While the 18 goats seized by the Thurston County Sheriff’s office have still not been returned to the farm and remain at a secret “black site” somewhere in the county, the legal battle itself remains in Thurston County District Court. I was very critical in my first article about the “emergency” phone warrant issued and approved by Thurston County Judge Murphy. I still am critical of this “emergency” warrant, however, it now appears that Judge Murphy was misled by Sheriff Deputy Nastansky in order to issue this warrant in the first place. This specific element of this sorry story merits a more detailed discussion because it has serious ramifications on this case, and the rest of the people who live in Thurston County.
Background on the Great Goat Seizure Fiasco
It does appear that the Great Goat Seizure conducted by the Thurston County Sheriff’s office and promoted by the Thurston County Prosecutor’s office has become an embarrassing and epic fiasco which only gets worse as more information is uncovered and exposed. A basic background so far:
- The Lattin’s Cider Mill Farm is a well known and very popular year round “agritourism” business in Thurston County, Washington State visited by thousands of children, tourists, and local residents for the past 40 years. It has been featured in countless videos, tourist guides, newspaper articles, and visitor videos for generations. The small herd of goats on the farm are almost always featured in these videos and stories.
- The Lattins employee approximately 25 people to help manage the farm and cider press business year round, including to help manage the goats, turkeys, chickens, and other livestock on this very public farm.
- With so many people visiting this farm, over the years, there have been the occasional complaint of one type or another filed against the farm. With thousands of people visiting these goats, an occasional person might file a complaint (if you own a public farm, you know this will happen).
- Until the recent Great Goat Seizure, all complaints filed against the Lattin farm have been identified as “Unfounded” by the Thurston County Sheriff.
- Some recently fired employees and a disgruntled former employee appear to have been organizing a campaign of complaints against the Lattins. One of their complaints was the recent one being investigated by Thurston County Deputy Nastansky in her capacity as the person in charge of animal cruelty complaints. This recent complaint, combined with a visit from the officer (but no vet review by the county) was the primary foundation of the “emergency” telephone search warrant issued by Thurston County.
- Thurston County originally seized 17 goats (they later revised this to 18 when they
realized they didn’t count correctly) and shipped the goats to be warehoused in secret locations throughout Thurston County by a local non-profit named Hoofed Animal Rescue of Thurston County (HAROTC), managed by a volunteer board of directors and employee of the animal services department. HAROTC can only get reimbursed for their cost of storage and food if the Lattins are convicted, and if the Lattins have the money to pay these costs.
- The dispute has been in Thurston County District Court, which seems strange because Thurston County Superior Court is where most major legal battles like this occur, but District Court is where misdemeanor charges of animal cruelty tend to be adjudicated (along with traffic tickets, restraining orders, etc). A legal battle is occurring in District Court as the Lattin family is demanding their goats be returned to the farm and denying all charges of animal cruelty filed against them. The Thurston County Prosecutor’s office, once they realized they couldn’t leverage the Lattin’s to plead guilty, have decided to go scorched earth on them by increasing the counts of animal cruelty from one to 18 per Lattin family member. The Lattin family have demanded a jury trial and refuse to waive their right to a speedy trial.
- This Friday, there is a hearing on a motion, filed in District Court by the Lattin’s attorney, Justin Kover, to challenge the original search warrant.
Why does this search warrant matter?
This fiasco has been troubled from the beginning by the fact that normal checks and balances built into the law enforcement and legal system appears to have failed this time. This troubles me because if it can happen to the Lattin family, it can happen to my neighbor, and it can happen to anyone with farm animals next. The rule of law should matter. If the rule of law becomes arbitrary and capricious, then our community descends into a very dark and scary place. (For more background on the 4th Amendment and the history of search warrants see the reference articles linked at the end of this article)
Normally, “emergency” search warrants are obtained when there is a serious emergency. For example, if a car has been pulled over and there is good reason to believe a dead body is in the trunk. They are not supposed to be issued willy nilly every time a police officer wants one. A few years ago I stopped a questionable vehicle on my property, and the young men in the vehicle appeared to be casing properties to steal stuff (not uncommon in rural Thurston County, unfortunately). When the Thurston County Deputy arrived at the scene, he didn’t feel he had enough probable cause to search the vehicle, so they went on their way to steal from the next property owner. I was frustrated by that experience, but the officer was exercising a level of discretion and following the law.
A legal search warrant requires not just the law enforcement officer to believe there is probable cause to search and seize evidence, but they must convince a judge of this fact. A judge, in order to make an impartial and legal decision to sign off on this search warrant, acts as a check and balance to the police officer to make sure constitutional law is observed, due process is followed, and to prevent an effort to obtain a search warrant if it appears improper.
However, in order for a judge to do his or her job well, they need accurate information. Which is why it is very important for the law officer requesting the warrant to be honest and accurate with the request. This Friday, there is going to be legal arguments presented to the court (based on this motion) by the Latins attorney that Judge Murphy was not given accurate information in order to convince her to approve the “emergency” search warrant.
The argument against the validity of the search warrant.
According to this motion (and the supporting documents provide evidence to support these claims), in preparation for the hearing on Friday, it appears that the deputy misrepresented the facts in this case to Judge Murphy in order to get an “emergency” search warrant issued to seize the animals. They are as follows:
- The Deputy indicated to Judge Murphy that 5 animal cruelty complaints had been filed against the Lattin’s farm previously. This is true. What she conveniently left out was the fact that all of them were determined to be “unfounded.” This means there was nothing to see. How would Judge Murphy have reacted to this information and would it have influenced her to maybe ask for more information?
- The Deputy appears to have misrepresented the information provided by the vet clinic implying that the goats had not received any care or medicine since 2012. The vet clinic had indicated that it was possible that other records were kept somewhere else (which was proven to be true when these records were found to be at the Lattin’s Farm itself). Rather than providing the complete picture to Judge Murphy, this critical piece of information was purposefully omitted.
- Finally, it appears that Deputy Nastansky exaggerated her expertise with goats. This is particularly significant because the deputy also refused to have a vet inspect the goats before the seizure, which the law clearly states the county should do. The verbal claims of expertise, which changed when the deputy wrote her report where these claims were then scaled back closer to the truth could also have influenced the judge. If the judge knew the true experience level of the deputy, would she have taken a different approach?
Why does this even matter? It matters because if this deputy is willing to omit the facts in order to convince a judge to issue an “emergency” search warrant, then what else would the deputy be willing to fudge or change to get a conviction? This is more serious than most people might realize.
Consider this scenario: Neighbor A moves to Thurston County from San Francisco to get away from the big city. They buy cheap land, but they don’t like how Neighbor B’s horses smell, their goats make noises, and their farm stinks. A nasty neighbor dispute ensues. Neighbor A files complaints – a lot of them. The sheriff’s department always gets the dirty and thankless job of visiting Neighbor B and determining there is no merit in the complaints. Sure, maybe things aren’t perfect at Neighbor B’s place, but the complaints don’t merit a SWAT team visit. However eventually there are so many complaints filed against neighbor B that one day an officer who visits Neighbor B gets frustrated and decides he doesn’t like neighbor B anyway so he misleads the judge – tells the judge that a bunch of complaints have been filed against neighbor B over time (but omits the fact they were found to have no merit), gets a search warrant, and now Neighbor A’s campaign of harassment bears some real fruit.
Once the ball begins to roll, it is embarrassing for any law enforcement agency to issue a search warrant and then to admit there is nothing to be found. Nobody wants to admit they are wrong, and this leads to a real legal and chaotic mess. Neighbor A feels pretty righteous about it, of course. Others see the strategy works, and the story begins to repeat itself throughout the county. Few rational people want to live in a world like this. Legal checks and balances were established to prevent this from happening. Those checks and balances appear to have failed in the Lattins case.
In Thurston County, a history of deference to government
It is well known that the judges in Thurston County tend to show great deference to anything the government tells them. Partly, this is a result of the demographic fact that roughly 52% of the county population either collects a paycheck from the government or their significant other does. This is what happens when your county is the home of state government, most state agency employees, and a variety of Federal agencies and local governments as well. This creates a built-in bias to accept anything a government agency reports by default. When in doubt, rule with the government. This has been Thurston County culture.
However, this culture may be changing. Familiarity does breed contempt, and if you want to hear about shocking scandals in government, spend some time speaking to employees who work there. If they don’t think they will lose their job, they will start talking, and the truth tends to be worse than the veneer of sedate government would indicate. This should surprise nobody. Government is made up of people, and human nature never changes. The founders knew this, and we should remind ourselves of this fact as well. This is why we have checks and balances, due process, and sometimes even transparency in government.
Regardless of the results of this next Friday hearing for the Lattins, it won’t help improve
the reputation of local government. Last year, the people of Thurston County rejected more of the same in the 2016 elections, but there is clearly much work to do to fix the problems and structural defects in Thurston County government created in the past.
I never expected to write an article which was critical of the Sheriff’s office, but the truth must be told, even if only to help prevent this type of thing from happening again. I have friends who work in the Thurston County Sheriff’s office. I have been on ride alongs here and with other law enforcement agencies. I know the job is tough, demanding, dangerous, and often thankless. Everyone should recognize how important public safety is for a healthy community, and a stable society requires a certain level of trust in our institutions.
There is a higher standard of behavior expected from those we pay to protect us and run our government. They need not be perfect, but they should be competent and they must be honest. When the people realize that government is neither competent nor honest, it isn’t a good thing for any of us, and it must be exposed and fixed.
OUR CONSTITUTION BEGINS WITH THE PHRASE “WE THE PEOPLE.” IT WAS THE FOUNDER’S INTENT THAT GOVERNMENT BE CREATED BY THE PEOPLE, TO SERVE THE PEOPLE. IT WASN’T THEIR INTENTION FOR THE PEOPLE TO SERVE THE GOVERNMENT. IT WAS ALWAYS INTENDED THAT GOVERNMENT WHICH FAILED TO SERVE THE PEOPLE SHOULD BE “ALTERED OR ABOLISHED.” UNTIL WE RETURN TO THE FOUNDER’S INTENT, WE REMAIN WE THE GOVERNED…
Background articles, links and source documents:
You can find tons of videos like this from people’s visit to the farm
Source links for Search Warrants, 4th Amendment, Search and Seizure, etc: