Jury upholds police in South Hadley marijuana case involving illegal search

Laste modified: Thursday, November 07, 2013
HADLEY — More than three years after one of the biggest marijuana busts in South Hadley unraveled because of an illegal search, a federal jury has ruled in a civil case that two police officers did not violate a South Hadley couple’s constitutional rights when they searched their property.

Stephen and Diane Opalenik, of 5 Bach Lane in South Hadley, represented themselves in the long-running case and said they plan to appeal the ruling.

“This isn’t about marijuana,” Stephen Opalenik said this week. “This is about invading a family and their rights to the home.”

The case began with the suspected larceny of china, music albums, copper pipe and a unique Beatles figure from an abandoned house at 425 River Drive in Hadley and led three days later to the discovery of a large-scale hydroponic marijuana growing operation and unsecured firearms during a search of the Opaleniks’ Bach Lane property in South Hadley in March 2008.

It ended Friday with the jury verdict in favor of police in a civil lawsuit brought by the Opaleniks against several members of the Hadley and South Hadley police departments.

Stephen Opalenik, who conducted depositions and cross-examination in the trial, said he was deeply disappointed with the outcome of the case. “Why it went to a jury is mind-blowing,” he said.

Hadley Town Administrator David G. Nixon said Wednesday that the town is pleased with the verdict. “We’re glad to have this put behind us,” he said.

The jury verdict comes seven months after U.S. Magistrate Judge Kenneth P. Neiman, in a summary judgement, settled most of a multi-count lawsuit in favor of the police officers named in the suit.

The Opaleniks’ lawsuit had alleged police engaged in a civil conspiracy, illegal search and arrest, failure to properly train and supervise officers, civil rights violations, malicious prosecution, negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress and defamation against the couple.

Neiman left a jury to decide whether former Hadley Officer David S. Bertera and South Hadley Police Det. Mark S. Dominick knowingly violated the Opaleniks’ constitutional rights when they searched a recording studio at 4 Bach Lane where they found the marijuana growing operation.

Neiman’s summary judgment acknowledged problems with the search, stating, “Not only did the officers fail to conduct some minimal investigation into the boundaries of the subject property, they appear to have used the first search warrant as an excuse for conducting the type of ‘wide-ranging exploratory searches’ the Framers intended to prohibit.”

In January 2010, the Massachusetts Appeals Court had invalidated an initial Hadley Police Department search warrant for 5 Bach Lane that led to a second search warrant at the adjacent 4 Bach Lane where a half dozen officers discovered hundreds of marijuana plants and a few unsecured shotguns on the property owned by the Opaleniks.

Stephen Opalenik, 55, and his wife were suspects in a case involving stolen items from the abandoned home in Hadley. He was subsequently arrested and convicted on drug and firearms charges, which were later reversed when the state Appeals Court, with a concession from the Northwestern District Attorney’s office, ruled that the initial search warrant was unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, the whereabouts of the missing items from the abandoned house in Hadley are still a mystery.

Dan Crowley can be reached at dcrowley@gazettenet.com.