Wichita, KS – In a “huge and significant victory for the Fourth Amendment,” the federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated a lawsuit brought by a Kansas City couple who endured a SWAT raid over their tomato plants. Robert and Adlynn Harte -- and their two young children -- were caught up in a county-wide sweep of suspected cannabis growers, in a prohibitionist state which still has not even legalized any form of medical cannabis.
The judges not only reinstated the Harte’s lawsuit against the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, which was dismissed by a federal judge in 2015, but went on to castigate the law enforcement agencies involved. They described the 2012 raid as an “unjustified government intrusion based on nothing more than junk science, an incompetent investigation and a publicity stunt.”
In the realm of unlawful police raids, this one may take the cake. It began with a Missouri State Highway Patrolman staking out a garden store every day in Kansas City in hopes of catching some pot growers. Robert Harte visited the store with his two children to buy supplies for an educational vegetable garden project in his basement.
The sergeant shared Harte’s information with a counterpart in the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office (JCSO), which was planning to raid several suspected cannabis growers on 4/20. JCSO went through the Harte’s trash on three occasions, eventually finding what officers believed was cannabis clippings soaked in THC extract.
But the “marijuana” was actually discarded tea leaves.
Despite a lab technician saying the tea leaves looked nothing like cannabis leaves or stems, deputies Edward Blake and Mark Burns used notoriously faulty field drug test kits which showed the presence of THC. These supposed field drug tests were the basis for planning the raid, but the deputies never photographed or documented the tests -- leading Judge Carlos Lucero to note that these circumstances gave the deputies strong motive to lie.
They had to find something on the Hartes, because the JCSO had already scheduled the raid on the Harte’s home. Several routine investigatory steps were ignored, making their search warrant “based on nothing more than gardening supplies in a bag and wet tea leaves in the garbage.”
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The list of sheer incompetence goes on. In his written decision, Lucero used extraordinary language to characterize just how reckless these drug warriors were.
“Law-abiding tea drinkers and gardeners beware: One visit to a garden store and some loose tea leaves in your trash may subject you to an early-morning, SWAT-style raid, complete with battering ram, bulletproof vests, and assault rifles.
Perhaps the officers will intentionally conduct the terrifying raid while your children are home, and keep the entire family under armed guard for two and a half hours while concerned residents of your quiet, family-oriented neighborhood wonder what nefarious crime you have committed. This is neither hyperbole nor metaphor—it is precisely what happened to the Harte family in the case before us.”
During the two and a half hour raid – where heavily armed SWAT team broke in during early morning hours while the children were home – officers frantically searched for anything to justify their debacle, but found only tomato plants and gardening supplies. Knowing the history of no-knock SWAT raids, someone could have easily gotten killed.
The cops had picked the wrong target this time, as both Mr. and Mrs. Harte are former CIA employees and knew a thing or two about research. After the traumatic experience, the Hartes set out to find out why this happened to them. Spending thousands of dollars in legal costs, they were able to procure a probable-cause affidavit.
It was easy to see that the “probable cause” was full of holes, and thankfully the 10th Circuit court actually studied the facts. The reinstated lawsuit includes unlawful search-and-seizure claims against 10 deputies, the sheriff who started the fiasco and the Johnson County Board of Commissioners.
The Hartes can also move forward with trying to prove that the cops lied about the field tests, and other claims under state law including trespass, assault and false imprisonment.
"There was no probable cause at any step of the investigation," wrote Lucero. "Not at the garden shop, not at the gathering of the tea leaves, and certainly not at the analytical stage when the officers willfully ignored directions to submit any presumed results to a laboratory for analysis.”
We will certainly be monitoring the outcome of this lawsuit. It exposes the ludicrous nature of the war on cannabis still being carried out in prohibitionist states controlled by Reefer Madness politicians. If there is any “justice” left in the justice system, the Hartes will succeed in holding these deplorable cops accountable.