Buying hydroponic gardening supplies and putting tea leaves in the trash were probable causes for a search warrant and a SWAT-team raid on a family’s home, a federal judge has ruled.
US District Judge John Lungstrum found that sheriff’s deputies that held a family at gunpoint because they mistook tea leaves in a garbage can for marijuana acted in a legal and reasonable manner. The police were suspicious after the husband and his two children visited a hydroponics gardening store.
“It was like Zero Dark Thirty ready to storm the compound,” Robert Harte said of an April 2012 raid on his Leawood, Kansas, home.
The Hartes’ home was raided after a Missouri Highway Patrol officer watched Harte carry a small bag from a hydroponics store in Kansas City, Missouri, seven months earlier, Off The Grid News previously reported.
“With little or no other evidence of any illegal activity, law enforcement officers make the assumption that shoppers at the store are potential marijuana growers, even though the stores are most commonly frequented by backyard gardeners who grow organically or start seedlings indoors,” a lawsuit the Hartes filed in 2014 stated.
Lungstrum, though, disagreed, and ruled in late December that the officers had probable cause.
The Missouri Highway Patrol officer’s report led deputies to search the Hartes’ trash and field test it for marijuana. (Warrants are not needed to search trash.) Tea leaves in the trash tested positive for marijuana, and so the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office SWAT team stormed the Harte home and held the family at gunpoint for two hours while searching for pot. A laboratory test later proved the material in the garbage was tea leaves.
Field tests are notoriously unreliable, The Washington Post’s Radley Balko wrote in a column. In fact, Balko said that nationwide, everything from chocolate chip cookies to Jolly Ranchers have tested positive for illegal drugs using field tests.
“The sheriff’s department couldn’t wait for the more accurate laboratory tests to confirm that the ‘saturated plant material’ was marijuana before sending a SWAT team into the Harte home,” Balko wrote. “… It took all of 10 days to complete those lab tests. The lab not only concluded that substance wasn’t pot, the analysts added, ‘It does not look anything like marijuana leaves or stems.’”
Couple Loses Lawsuit but Changes Law
No cannabis was found and no charges were ever brought against Harte and his wife, Adlynn. Disturbingly, the Hartes had to file a lawsuit against Johnson County to learn why the raid had taken place. Under Kansas law at the time, police could keep probable cause warrants secret. The law has since been changed, mostly due to the Hartes’ incredible case.
“I didn’t think it was right that it took the Hartes a year and $25,000 or more in their own money in legal fees to obtain the information, the probable cause affidavit, that supported the warrant that allowed the Johnson County Sheriff’s Department to come into their home with weapons drawn,” Kansas State Representative John Rubin told The Wichita Eagle.
The Hartes were contending that Johnson County violated their Fourth Amendment rights by conducting a search without probable cause.
Under the new law, the public and reporters can get access to such records after raids have been conducted.
“Now the public has access to probable-cause affidavits without having to spend the kind of money the Hartes had to spend,” Max Kautcsh, the legal counsel for the Kansas Press Association told The Eagle. “It is extremely significant. Now the presumption is that the probable cause affidavits are open. Before, the presumption was that they were closed.
The Hartes are not done with their legal battle. Their attorney, Cheryl Pilate, told The Eagle that the ruling likely will be appealed.
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