A federal circuit court is giving a Kansas couple the chance to pursue federal charges against cops who raided their house after confusing loose-leaf tea for marijuana.
On April 20, 2012, Kansas sheriff's deputies raided the home of Adlynn and Robert Harte, hoping to bust a secret cannabis grow-operation and show the public how they were winning the War on Drugs. Deputies armed with assault rifles swarmed the family's home, forcing the couple's two young children to watch as they tore the house apart looking for weed.
The cops, however, were wrong. There was not a trace of cannabis at the Hartes' home. The couple filed a federal lawsuit against the police, but lost the case after a jury trial in 2017. The couple appealed, and this month, the US Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit ruled that they were wrongly denied the chance to pursue three separate claims against the police.
The story began in 2011, when a Missouri cop staking out a local garden store on a hunt for weed growers noticed Robert Harte shopping at the store. The cop decided this activity was highly suspicious, and notified Kansas police that Harte could be a potential weed kingpin. Kansas cops, hoping to launch a publicized series of raids against local weed growers on 4/20, decided to investigate the Hartes. After digging through the family's trash, deputies turned up wet loose-leaf tea, which they mistook for marijuana.
"The deputies did not photograph any of the substances, nor did they send them to a crime lab for testing," wrote Judge Joel Carson in the 10th Circuit court's decision, Reason reports. "If the deputies would have sent the wet vegetation to a crime lab for testing, they would have discovered that the wet vegetation was not marijuana but instead was Addie's loose-leaf tea. Rather than conducting further investigation, the deputies prepared a search warrant affidavit relying solely on the loose-leaf tea found in the garbage and Bob's shopping trip to a garden store eight months earlier."
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Police used a field test on the tea leaves, which indicated that they were marijuana. However, the label on the test kit clearly stated that its results were not entirely accurate, and should be confirmed by a proper laboratory test. In the ruling, Judge Carlos Lucero cited a study that “found a 70% false positive rate using this field test, with positive results obtained from substances including vanilla, peppermint, ginger,” various teas and herbs, as well as "a strip of newspaper, and even air.”
The Hartes filed a federal lawsuit in 2013, but a judge dismissed all of their claims. The couple appealed, and in 2017, the 10th Circuit Court ruled that they were allowed to pursue one solitary federal claim. This claim, which hinged on whether or not the deputies lied about the field test, went to trial in 2017, but the jury found there was not enough evidence to prove that the cops deliberately lied.
This month, the 10th Circuit ruled that the earlier decision to limit the family to only one claim was made in error. The current decision allows the Hartes to pursue three separate charges: "(1) whether Defendants properly executed the warrant; (2) whether the deputies exceeded the scope of the warrant by searching for evidence of general criminal activity; and (3) whether the deputies prolonged Plaintiffs' detention, thus subjecting them to an illegal arrest."
"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 2017. "There was no probable cause at any step of the investigation. 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. Full stop."