Last December, Radley Balko of the Washington Post, who has been one of the preeminent writers on the excesses of police militarization and other law enforcement issues, reported on a rather terrifying police raid on a family in Leawood, Kansas.
The Hartes, both former CIA analysts and parents to a seven-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old son, were targeted on the suspicion that their residence was becoming a hotbed for narcotics cultivation after Mr. Harte took a few trips to the gardening store. A police officer stationed in the parking lot took their license plate number, entered it into a spreadsheet, and then sent that off to the local sheriff’s department for further inquiry. As Balko noted, even a trip to home and garden could put you in the crosshairs of the police. To make things more absurd, the supplies bought were not to grow marijuana, but to assist in their son’s science project, which involved growing hydroponic tomatoes.
When SWAT came a knocking guns blazing, the plant material they did find turned out to be tea leaves; Mrs. Harte drinks it often. How did police know that there was also “saturated plant material” at the Hartes’ home? They dug through their trash:
When Robert Harte answered, SWAT agents flooded the home. He was told to lie on the floor. When Addie Harte came out to see what was going on, she saw her husband on his stomach as SWAT cop stood over him with a gun. The family was then held at gunpoint for more than two hours while the police searched their home. Though they claimed to be looking for evidence of a major marijuana growing operation, they later stated that they knew within about 20 minutes that they wouldn’t find any such operation. So they switched to search for evidence of “personal use.” They found no evidence of any criminal activity.
On several occasions, the Sheriff’s Department sent deputies out to sort through the family’s garbage. (The police don’t need a warrant to sift through your trash.) The deputies repeatedly found “saturated plant material” that they thought could possibly be marijuana. On two occasions, a drug testing field kit inexplicably indicated the presence of THC, the active drug in marijuana. It was on the basis of those tests and Harte’s patronage of a gardening store that the police obtained the warrant for the SWAT raid.
But, of course, they found nothing. Lab tests would later reveal that the “saturated plant material” was actually loose-leaf tea, which Addie Harte drinks on a regular basis. Why did the field tests come up positive for pot? As I wrote back in February, it’s almost as if these tests come up positive whenever the police need them to. A partial list of substances that the tests have mistaken for illegal drugs would include sage, chocolate chip cookies, motor oil, spearmint, soap, tortilla dough, deodorant, billiard’s chalk, patchouli, flour, eucalyptus, breath mints, Jolly Ranchers and vitamins.
Of course, the Hartes felt their constitutional rights were violated by this rather traumatizing incident:
Under Kansas law, the sheriff’s department wasn’t obligated to turn over any information related to the raid — not to the Hartes, not to the media, not to anyone. The couple eventually had to hire an attorney to get a judge to order the sheriff to release the information. They spent more than $25,000 in legal fees just to learn why the sheriff had sent a SWAT team into their home. Once they finally had that information, the Hartes filed a lawsuit.
Last week, U.S. District Court Judge John W. Lungstrum dismissed every one of the Hartes’s claims. Lungstrum found that sending a SWAT team into a home first thing in the morning based on no more than a positive field test and spotting a suspect at a gardening store was not a violation of the Fourth Amendment. He found that the police had probable cause for the search, and that the way the search was conducted did not constitute excessive force. He found that the Hartes had not been defamed by the raid or by the publicity surrounding it. He also ruled that the police were under no obligation to know that drug testing field kits are inaccurate, nor were they obligated to wait for the more accurate lab tests before conducting the SWAT raid. The only way they’d have a claim would be if they could show that the police lied about the results, deliberately manipulated the tests or showed a reckless disregard for the truth — and he ruled that the Hartes had failed to do so.
Yet, there have been some pushes to reform Kansas’ public records law, though as Balko wrote, these are baby steps in the right direction, but not yet “a resounding victory for transparency.” Nevertheless, he does ask what happens to those who aren’t financially stable, white, or have $25,000 available to spend on legal fees to fight for their rights in these botched raids.