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Marijuana bust shines light on utilities

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The electric meter outside your house helps the power company determine just how much to bill you every month. But it can also give authorities a peek into your life to see if you've been up to no good.

A former state trooper learned that lesson when Dorchester County deputies raided his Ridgeville rental property in January 2010 and discovered a sophisticated indoor marijuana farm.

Court papers recently filed in the case revealed that investigators were tipped off by the tenant's utility company. Edisto Electric workers called police after noticing unusually high electricity use on the property and numerous instances of tripping circuits, authorities said.

The find was a boon for law enforcement, but it raises questions about the electric company's role in the process: Should a utility function as an arm of law enforcement and share information about its paying customers without a warrant based purely on its suspicions?

Edisto Electric, a rural electric cooperative based in Bamberg, refused to comment on the incident or its policies for sharing information with police. Spokesman Frank Furtick cited the pending criminal case and "a policy of Edisto Electric to refrain from publicly commenting on such things."

Area police and utility company officials say such incidents are relatively rare, and some power companies insist they wouldn't turn in customers simply because their bills are high. Spikes in power usages more often result from faulty heating systems, leaking duct work or other mundane maladies, they said.

Santee Cooper workers have notified police when they've stumbled across marijuana farms, but utility officials couldn't recall reporting anyone for high energy use, spokeswoman Mollie Gore said.

South Carolina Electric and Gas spokesman Eric Boomhower was even more direct.

"Do we report people to authorities based on a given customer's electric usage? The answer is a flat-out 'No.' "

Big Brother concerns

The potential for power company privacy intrusions has sparked debates in California, Florida and other states with the spread of so-called "smart" meters that transmit consumption data to utilities from homes and businesses.

Designed to make America's power transmission system more efficient, the meters have drawn suspicion from folks worried about Big Brother spying on their household habits.

Identifying illicit pot growers through excessive electrical use is nothing new. Indoor growers often give themselves away by using high-intensity lamps and climate-control equipment to nurture their plants.

Tracking diverted power helped police in suburban Port St. Lucie, Fla., shut down dozens of grow houses five years ago. Or take the case of a Nashville grower undone two years ago by racking up electricity bills three times larger than his neighbors'.

In most cases, however, police approach power companies for information after receiving a tip or evidence of a marijuana-growing operation.

In the Dorchester County case, Edisto Electric took the first step and, in essence, became a police informant, authorities said.

Dorchester County sheriff's Maj. John Garrison said the utility was being a good corporate citizen and helped the sheriff's office uncover a significant growing operation that might otherwise have escaped attention.

"I don't know if we would have found it without them," he said.

Narcotics Detective Shaun Tumbleston testified in a hearing on the case last week that Edisto Electric was concerned in late 2009 because its workers kept having to go to Stable Lane to reset a transformer after the circuits overloaded. They couldn't figure out why a rural property with no residence was racking up electric bills of $800 a month, he said.

That tip yielded several arrests and the seizure of more than 300 marijuana plants being grown in the sheds and a container on the property of former state trooper Kurt Steffen, authorities said.

A duty to share?

Danny Lee Kyllo is an Oregon man whose marijuana-growing case helped define national standards for police searches. In 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled authorities overstepped their bounds when they uncovered more than 100 pot plants in his home based on heat detected by a thermal imaging camera. The court ruled that a warrant was needed to conduct such a search.

Kyllo, who is writing a book about his case, said he was troubled by several aspects of the Dorchester County incident, including the utility company's willingness to drop a dime on a customer who paid for a service.

"For them to call up the police on this person because the electric bill was too high, that is going beyond what that service is supposed to be," he said.

However, Charleston criminal defense lawyer Michael O'Connell said the power company appears to be within its right to do so.

"People don't have an expectation to privacy in every area of their lives," he said. "And I don't think you have a privacy as to what your electricity bill is."

The issue is bound to crop up again, as indoor marijuana cultivation is said to be on the rise as growers use advanced hydroponic techniques to avoid scrutiny in open fields. Indoor growers are estimated to consume about 1 percent of the nation's electricity, enough to power some 2 million homes, according to a study released last year by Evan Mills, a scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.

Jim Dempsey, vice president for public policy for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Democracy & Technology, said questions about the Dorchester County case are part of a larger debate about a lack of national privacy standards.

Under current law, customers have no constitutional right to protect data held by third-party companies they do business with, whether it be a utility, bank or Internet travel service, Dempsey said. In an age when more business is being conducted electronically, police often no longer need to bust down your door to learn your habits and intimate secrets, he said.

"There is all of this sensitive data all over the place," he said. "That data is only getting richer, and it's only getting easier to collect it, analyze it and share it."

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