Jury Awards Couple No Damages For Bungled Marijuana Raid Predicated On Wet Tea Leaves

from the sheriff's-office-free-to-abuse-citizens-again dept

A jury has shrugged its shoulders in response to a farcical effort by local publicity hounds/drug warriors to score a 4/20 marijuana bust, only to end up with a handful of garden supplies and violated rights. The lead-up to the bungled raid of Robert and Addie Harte's house included a law enforcement agency hoping to bury the previous year's 4/20 raid failure (in which tomatoes were seized), a state trooper compiling a freelance database of garden store visitors, two field drug tests that identified tea leaves as marijuana, and a whole lot of might-makes-right drug warrioring.

By the time it was over, the Hartes had been held at gunpoint for two hours while the sheriff's department desperately tried to find something illegal in their home. Nothing was found and the Hartes sued the law enforcement agency. The district court said this was fine: officers should be able to rely on the results of field drug tests, even when said field drug tests are notoriously fallible.

The Appeals Court, however, disagreed entirely with the lower court's "ignorance = immunity" theory.

The defendants in this case caused an unjustified governmental intrusion into the Harte's’ home based on nothing more than junk science, an incompetent investigation, and a publicity stunt. The Fourth Amendment does not condone this conduct, and neither can I.

It's of little comfort to the Hartes, however. While the Appeals Court may have stripped the immunity, it was still up to a jury to decide how much this debacle was going to cost taxpayers footing the bill for law enforcement malfeasance. I guess taxpayers can breathe a little easier, even if it means the sheriff's office no longer faces much of a deterrent effect. Jacob Sullum at Reason has the disappointing details.

This week a federal jury declined to award any damages to Adlynn and Robert Harte, the Leawood, Kansas, couple whose home was raided in 2012 based on a field tests that supposedly identified wet tea leaves in their trash as marijuana. The verdict is not very surprising, since the only claim the Hartes were allowed to pursue required them to show that Johnson County sheriff's deputies lied about the results of the tests.

Limited to that one claim, it's unlikely the Hartes will ever see monetary damages awarded, even on appeal. As for the sheriff's office, its claims of infallible field drug tests will continue to be held up as another example of just how ignorant courts allow law enforcement officers to be.

[D]eputy Mark Burns confessed that he had never seen loose tea before but thought, based on his training and experience, that it looked like marijuana leaves. A lab technician consulted after the raid disagreed, saying the leaves didn't "appear to be marijuana" to the unaided eye and didn't "look anything like marijuana leaves or stems" under a microscope. Burns himself did not deem the leaves suspicious the first time he pulled them out of the Hartes' garbage. But he thought they were worth testing when he returned a week later, 10 days before the raids demanded by Operation Constant Gardener. Sheriff Frank Denning, who authorized the search of the Hartes' home without laboratory confirmation of the field test results, claimed he had never heard such tests could generate false positives, despite four decades in law enforcement and despite the warning on the label. Maybe Burns and Denning were both lying, but it is at least as easy to believe they were simply uninformed, incompetent, and careless.

The Appeals Court tore this useful ignorance apart, allowing the Hartes' case to proceed. The lack of awarded damages -- and the reduction of the case to a single assertion almost impossible to prove -- reinstates the shield of willful ignorance. The less cops know about the tools they use, the better. You can't perjure yourself if you don't read the warning label or educate yourself about field test failure rates. Not knowing stuff makes the job so much easier. In law enforcement, ignorance is better than bliss. It's a Get Out Of Litigation Free card.


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Jan 2018 @ 8:24am

    Re: New law against reckless stupidity

    We don't need a law against reckless stupidity, we just need cops to be held accountable for not knowing the laws they're supposed to be enforcing.

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