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News / Northwest

Idaho residents allege DEA, Canyon County agencies used excessive force in drug search

By Alex Brizee, , Idaho Statesman (TNS),
Published: May 25, 2022, 9:50am

Two years ago, the Drug Enforcement Administration, with the help of two Canyon County law enforcement agencies, searched a home west of Caldwell for drugs. The officers didn’t find any, according to court documents obtained by the Idaho Statesman.

Now, residents of the Greenleaf home are suing the agencies, alleging they used excessive force; unlawfully seized, detained and arrested a man; assaulted and battered the residents; and illegally took cash in the house.

The DEA was allowed to search the home after a Nampa police detective received a Facebook message from one of the residents, 38-year-old Sothea Ren, in April, offering oxycodone for purchase, according to the criminal complaint. Before the search, law enforcement agencies had set up a separate undercover sting for an officer to buy drugs from her, the criminal complaint said.

In May 2020, the DEA, Canyon County Sheriff’s Office and Nampa Police Department then executed the search warrant for the home, where Sothea Ren was arrested. She was charged with six counts of distribution of oxycodone, according to the charging document obtained by the Statesman.

Three other Idaho residents — Paul Leitz, Sakhann Ouch and Vutha Ren — along with two minors were also present during the search, according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court. The 124-page lawsuit was filed by all the residents, excluding Sothea Ren, against the three agencies and 36 law enforcement employees that were present during the incident. The Idaho Press first reported on the complaint.

Several lawsuits have recently been filed against multiple Canyon County law enforcement agencies prior to the May 12 lawsuit — including allegations the sheriff’s office harassed and discriminated against a former employee. Officers from the Caldwell Police Department are currently under FBI investigation.

The lawsuit alleged that the search at Leitz’s Greenleaf home took place at about 5 a.m. on May 14 — an hour before the warrant was authorized. Multiple police narratives included within the lawsuit said the warrant was executed at 6 a.m.

The lawsuit said the DEA did not “knock and announce” prior to executing the search warrant, signed by Idaho U.S. Magistrate Judge Candy Dale. The DEA in its incident report rebutted the allegation.

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Leitz alleged within the complaint that throughout the search, law enforcement officials entered his home in a “tumultuous and violent manner” by smashing in the front door and breaking two windows. The lawsuit said the officers were “hostile, aggressive and violent” toward the residents.

The lawsuit alleged that during the search, the DEA and the other agencies caused injuries to the plaintiffs. According to the complaint, DEA agents placed handcuffs on Vutha Ren and made him lie on his stomach, while they placed a knee and foot on Vutha Ren’s back for 45 to 60 minutes.

Leitz in the complaint said that after the initial seizure, he was arrested and “unlawfully detained” as he was taken to the Nampa Police Department to wait in a locked interrogation room. While in the interrogation room, the lawsuit said that when Leitz tried to leave, Nampa police officers Michael Coronado and Det. Angel Caldero “lunged at Leitz,” struck him in the chest and forced him back, slamming him into the wall.

After a “short argument” with a DEA agent, the agent told Leitz he wouldn’t be pressing charges against him and that he was allowed to leave, according to the lawsuit.

A review by the Statesman found none of the plaintiffs were charged with a crime following the 2020 incident.

The lawsuit also alleged that one of the DEA agents during the seizure was heard saying, “OK, we can’t find anything illegal, let(s) take all the cash.” According to the complaint, the DEA took $30,000 from Leitz — which he said came from a family settlement — and returned only $10,958.

The DEA seized multiple items from Leitz’s residence, according to a receipt from the seizure reviewed by the Statesman. The items included two phones, a Sony hand camera and a laptop. The document also mentioned the seizure of an unknown amount of money.

Both the lawsuit and police incident reports said an undisclosed amount of money was also seized from Sothea Ren’s purse and a safe in Ouch’s bedroom, in addition to the money allegedly taken from Leitz.

With the search warrant, the DEA was allowed to seize money that was “related to income and expenditures of money and wealth relating to controlled substances,” according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit alleged police did not establish the money was taken because of a connection to drugs, and that they took the money because they didn’t find the drugs and “were pissed off.”

Multiple items on the list were documented as seized items but then later scratched out, including another phone, nine pill bottles with one containing oxycodone, and a vape case that was listed as having “possible marijuana.” According to the DEA’s investigation report, the items were quickly returned as a further investigation found they were legal or belonged to one of the plaintiffs.

Spokespersons with the DEA and the Nampa Police Department declined to comment due to ongoing litigation.

Canyon County spokesperson Joe Decker declined to comment on the investigation, but told the Statesman by email as of Wednesday the county hadn’t been served with a complaint. Decker didn’t respond to a follow-up phone call Friday.

“It’s also important to remember that anything in a complaint, like in a notice of tort, is merely an allegation of wrongdoing or harm and unsubstantiated claims should not be treated as fact,” Decker said.