No high for ’shroom hunter in court trip

Some Pacific County mushrooms, like this one, are unlawful to harvest or possess.

OLYMPIA, Wash. — A “magic mushroom” hunter’s journey through the Washington Court of Appeals has turned out to be something of a bad trip.

At the end of July, a panel of COA justices said they didn’t buy Benjamin Joshua Chester’s argument that Cape Disappointment State Park Ranger Tom Benenati violated his privacy by searching the bag of hallucinogenic mushrooms that Chester ditched when he was caught illegally harvesting them inside the park. They upheld Chester’s 2015 Pacific County Superior Court conviction for drug possession.

In the fall, ’shroomers flock to Clatsop and Pacific counties to hunt for psilocybe azurescens and other psychedelic mushrooms, so it’s not at all uncommon to see young people wandering slowly through peninsula pastures and dunes, taking an unusually intense interest in the ground.

Numerous special-interest forums, including www.shroomery.org, note the local abundance of ’shrooms, and offer advice about how to avoid getting busted while harvesting them. As a result, ’shroomers often carry camera or other special-purpose bags, because internet lore holds that cops can’t legally search or arrest people who are doing “research” or “nature photography.”

The local cat-and-mouse game between law enforcement and ’shroomers even gets a mention on the Wikipedia page for azurescens, or “azures.” According to the page, “Cape Disappointment State Park, near Ilwaco, Washington, has a large population, but harvesting is a potential felony that is enforced by local law enforcement agencies.”

Chester, 33, apparently didn’t get the memo. On Nov. 22, 2014, Benenati went to investigate a report of two men who were behaving suspiciously in a gated-off area of the park that was closed to the public. He found Chester in the woods, “on his hands and knees, intently going through the leaf debris in a manner that was consistent with a person who was harvesting mushrooms,” according to court documents. Chester tried to walk away, but Benenati stopped and arrested Chester. During a subsequent search, Benenati discovered a bag of freshly harvested magic mushrooms at the spot where Chester had been working.

After Chester’s arrest, Pacific County Prosecutor Mark McClain offered him a plea-deal that would have sent him to county jail for about 15 days, but Chester wanted to go to trial. During the August 2015 trial, Chester and his attorney tried to prevent the bag of mushrooms from being presented as evidence, but the judge allowed them. The jury convicted Chester, and he was sentenced to 45 days in jail.

“What most of the community doesn’t realize ... is that every case we take to trial results in an appeal, frequently more than one, which is far more time consuming than the trial itself,” McClain said in a statement after the trial.

In his 2015 appeal, Chester argued that Benenati did not have “reasonable suspicion” that he was committing a crime when he stopped him. He also argued that he had not actually abandoned the bag of mushrooms, so it was personal property that Benenati did not have the right to search or seize.

The justices didn’t find these arguments very convincing. Generally, police need a warrant to perform searches during stops, but Washington law makes a clear exception for property that has been voluntarily abandoned. The three justices noted that Chester did not dispute the fact that he was caught in an off-limits area, that harvesting of mushrooms was prohibited under park rules, that the state park is a public place where he had no reasonable expectation of privacy, and that he had tried to flee from Benenati — a clear indication “that Chester intended to leave the bag behind.”

“The trial court concluded that Benenati had probable cause to believe that Chester was illegally harvesting mushrooms …” the justices wrote in the opinion. “... The trial court further concluded that Chester had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the bag of mushrooms.”