Cops traumatize family with bogus, misdirected ‘pot bust’

Hydroponic tomato garden (Court exhibit photo)

Hydroponic tomato garden (Court exhibit photo)

A family in America’s heartland was traumatized when local cops invaded their home, battering ram in hand, searching for marijuana based on their purchase of hydroponic gardening equipment to raise tomatoes.

Bob Harte, a former CIA employee, found himself flat on his stomach in his Kansas City home after a swarm of armed deputies from Johnson County, with guns drawn, invaded his home one morning, freaking out his wife, Addie, and their two kids – a girl in kindergarten and a boy in the seventh grade. Having seen enough TV crime shows, the teenager instinctively put his hands up.

The officers would only say they were searching for narcotics.

“You take the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, all the rights you expect to have – when they come in like that, the only right you have is not to get shot if you cooperate,” Harte told the Washington Post about the raid April 20, 2102. “They open that door, your life is on the line.”

After five years, the Hartes’ efforts to get satisfaction through federal lawsuits have failed. But last week they got the news that a three-judge panel of the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeal ruled the case could move forward.

The ruling blasted authorities for laziness and possible fabrication, the kind of overzealous police work that entangles innocent people – especially hydroponic gardeners.

The case calls into question Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to reprioritize marijuana investigations, just as the drug is being decriminalized and legalized in many jurisdictions.

“Our family will never be the same,” Addie Harte said. “If this can happen to us, everybody in the country needs to be afraid,” Bob added.

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Starting in 1997, Sgt. James Wingo of the Missouri State Highway Patrol started pulling surveillance shifts in the parking lots of hydroponic garden stores around the state, according to court records. The project’s logic, as Wingo explained in a 2011 letter to other law enforcement agencies, was that the stores “sell items that are consistently found in indoor marijuana growing operations.” As customers came and went, Wingo would note their license plate information and enter names into a database.

A year before the bogus bust, Wingo conceived of “Operation Constant Gardener.” In a letter to law enforcement, Wingo stated he would “supply your agency with the names of these customers that are within your jurisdiction. This will give your agency two weeks to initiate brief investigation” to “obtain probable cause for a search warrant.” Then, per Wingo’s plan, the various agencies would all strike on the same day – April 20. Wingo chose the timing due to the date’s association with pot fans: it was a date “celebrated in that community much as we celebrate Christmas.” Wingo promised the operation would be a “significant media event.”

The Hartes met at work with the CIA and moved to the Kansas City area to raise a family in the 1990s. Mrs. Harte took a job as an attorney with a local financial firm and Mr. Harte stayed home and raised the kids – and the tomatoes.

The hydroponic garden was part experiment and part educational project with his son. He purchased the equipment at a local gardening store. Wingo was watching when Harte picked up the PCV pipes and lamps. He took down his license plate and that was the probable cause for the operation.

Law enforcement searched every square inch of the house and property over eight months. Though no marijuana was found, the cops insisted they had found seeds and stems on the property. The cops suggested the Hartes’ son was smoking pot. Harte suggested the police take him to a pediatrician for a drug test – advice they did not follow.

Mrs. Harte says she had trouble explaining to her son what was going on.

“I had nothing, how do you explain that?” she said to a reporter. “They know I can’t protect them then. “Sitting in your home, having your Miranda rights read to you, its absolutely surreal.”

Official paperwork recorded before the raid showed investigators had pulled the family’s trash. What they found of interest was referred to as “wet glob vegetation.”

“As soon as we heard that, we knew it was my tea,” Mrs. Hart said, referring to a loose-leaf Teavana brand tea she drank regularly. “But it took over a year and $2,500 for a lawyer to figure out what had happened.”

In November 2013, the couple filed a federal lawsuit against the county’s board of commissioners, as well as the officers involved. The family claimed the raid was an unlawful search-and-seizure in violation of the 14th and Fourth Amendments. The suit, which asked for $7 million in damages, also argued law enforcement violated state laws including trespassing and abuse of power.

In December, 2015, U.S. District Judge John W. Lungstrum threw out the family’s case citing qualified immunity, the legal doctrine that shields officers from liability for otherwise lawful acts in the course of their duty. The Hartes appealed.

Last week, the three judge panel – Carlos Lucero, Gregory Phillips and Nancy Moritz – ruled against the state, sending the case back to district court. The 100-page decision pushed back hard against the claim police officers are immune from legal responsibility if they are just doing their jobs.

“The defendants in this case caused an unjustified governmental intrusion into the Hartes’ home based on nothing more than junk science, an incompetent investigation, and a publicity stunt,” Lucero wrote in his opinion. “The Fourth Amendment does not condone this conduct, and neither can I.”

The judge went on to question the department’s claim of probable cause for the raid – particularly on the issue of the supposedly “positive” field-tested tea leaves. “There was no probable cause at any step of the investigation,” the judge wrote. “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.”

“The Fourth Amendment was not there when we needed it,” Mr. Harte said. “We want to restore that for future generations.”

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