Marijuana

Jury Rejects Damages for Victims of Pot Raid Based on Wet Tea Leaves

The jurors seem to have concluded that the bumbling drug warriors of Johnson County, Kansas, were incompetent rather than dishonest.

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Teavana

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. There are other plausible explanations for the comically inept operation that led to an early-morning SWAT invasion and an increasingly desperate two-and-a-half-hour search for a nonexistent marijuana grow.

As 10th Circuit Judge Carlos Lucero noted in the July 25 appeals court ruling that allowed the Hartes' lawsuit to proceed, the field test the deputies say they used on the leaves is notoriously unreliable. "One study," Lucero wrote, "found a 70% false positive rate using this field test, with positive results obtained from substances including vanilla, peppermint, ginger, eucalyptus, cinnamon leaf, basil, thyme, lemon grass, lavender, organic oregano, organic spearmint, organic clove, patchouli, ginseng, a strip of newspaper, and even air." The label on the test kit warns that its results "are only presumptive in nature" and should be confirmed by laboratory analysis.

The deputies' failure to heed that warning could be seen as evidence that they lied about the field tests. But it is also consistent with a pattern of false urgency, ignorance, and sloppiness. The initial impetus for the raid was a tip from Sgt. James Wingo of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, who saw Robert Harte visit a garden supply store in Kansas City with his two kids on August 9, 2011. Harte was planning to grow vegetables with his son as a science project, but to Wingo he looked like a cannabis kingpin. Wingo sat on the supposedly incriminating information that Harte had bought indoor gardening supplies for seven months before sharing it with the Johnson County Sheriff's Office, just in time for "Operation Constant Gardener." That publicity stunt, conceived by Wingo, required pot raids on April 20, the unofficial stoner holiday. Hence the false urgency.

As for the ignorance, Deputy 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 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 concluded. "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."

The Hartes plan to appeal the verdict against them. But even if they never win a dime in compensation for the trauma and embarrassment inflicted by the bumbling drug warriors of Johnson County, they have made redress easier for future victims of police abuse by lobbying for reform of their state's public records law, and they have shined a light on the pseudoscience, phony expertise, and reckless showboating that pass for professionalism among cops who dream up vanity projects like Operation Constant Gardener.

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60 responses to “Jury Rejects Damages for Victims of Pot Raid Based on Wet Tea Leaves

  1. Why is incompetence a get-out-of-damages card? Being shitty at your job isn’t okay just because it’s out of stupidity rather than laziness or malice.

    1. Yeah, I’m pretty sure a non-cop who claimed to be able to do a job and then royally fucked it up because of incompetence could be held liable for any damages incurred.

    2. Because they’re the government, that’s why. It’s retarded. Professional incompetence is treated completely different for them.

      1. It’s because they don’t have enough money in their budget.

        If you gave them 100% of the money they want, I’m sure they’d do a better job.

        1. Needz Moar training. If we make sure that they are properly aware of how every interaction with a human may be their last, and that they absolutely must shoot first to protect themselves, then lawsuits like this won’t happen. Think about it: if they’d done that here, miss Harte wouldn’t have been able to file against them.

      2. It’s rewarded.

      3. I briefly worked for a state DOT. Incompetence didn’t get you fired, it just meant a private consulting firm did your work.

      4. I briefly worked for a state DOT. Incompetence didn’t get you fired, it just meant a private consulting firm did your work.

    3. I stand by this. You need to prove malice. If you had to prove malice then my bro wouldn’t be in prison right now. Walking around with a boner and tripping and fucking a chick is NOT RAPE.

      1. [tearfully hums “In Your Eyes”]

        1. My bro always loved post-Genesis Peter Gabriel…

    4. Tbe govetnment gives its agents the benefits of mens rea gladly, a citizen, grudgingly.

    5. In addition to the police incompetence, there’s the fact that the test kit is so unreliable, it’s virtually worthless. Nonetheless, doesn’t a false positive make a defamatory statement against a suspect? I wonder if anyone has ever sued the manufacturer of the kit for smearing victims with false positive test results? Surely it happens in medical cases where are faulty test leads to undesirable outcomes.

      Such a case might force the manufacturer to require indemnification by any user of the kit in the form of written acknowledgment that the test results may contain false positives and are not of themselves legally actionable evidence.

  2. Weren’t the victims former government employees with high security clearance?

    1. So, you’re saying they probably had it coming?

    2. IIRC, they were former FBI or CIA or something. Some alphabet agency.

  3. they have made redress easier for future victims of police abuse by lobbying for reform of their state’s public records law

    So, I was checking that link, and it didn’t really say anything about the law being changed, just that it was going to be voted on. Which led me to wonder whether or not they had actually achieved any reform. I did find this link however, which does say it was passed.

    Your welcome, Sullum.

    1. I SF’d that.

      Here.

    2. Damn you Reason! Give us an Edit button!!!

  4. “Harte was planning to grow vegetables with his son as a science project, but to Wingo he looked like a cannabis kingpin.”

    So take that, kids – don’t eat vegetables, you’ll get raided by the police!

    1. No. Don’t grow your own, or else. Buy Monsanto, bitches!

  5. Deputy Mark Burns confessed that he had never seen loose tea before

    Should we really be letting teabaggers enforce the laws?

      1. Really a fucking strange comment though. Having never seen loose tea before is almost equivalent to saying you have never seen dried leaves. Tea leaves are not even a very specific thing.

        1. That must be why Starbucks is closing Teavana. Too many confused but excited drug warriors.

          1. That must be why Starbucks is closing Teavana.

            “Simon says: Stop closing your stores”

        2. I bet his yard looks nasty this time of year.

    1. Deputy Mark Burns confessed that he had never seen loose tea before

      and that he is still a virgin.

  6. At least the police try to make the world a better place! What do you lot do?!

    1. The comments at Hit and Run are nothing if not constructive criticism (up to, and including, the liberal use of woodchippers).

    2. “At least the police try to make the world a better place”

      Citation required

    3. The problem is the government initiating force. The cops are the sharp end of that so no they aren’t making the world a better place.

    4. The nimiety of your naivete is exceeded by the paucity of your perspicacity.

  7. Dumpster Diving Hero Cop Fights Drug War In His Spare Time

    1. “Dumpster Diving Hero Cop Fights Drug War In His Spare Time”

      Nice headline. Might I suggest a typical sub-head?

      “Overcomes Challenges of Mental Retardation, Inadequate Education to Make the World a Better Place”

      PS-That “To Make the World a Better Place” slogan should be copyrighted by the FOP, maybe sewn on a patch they could wear. Wonder if Daniel Shaver would have appreciated the huge irony had that been the last thing he ever saw, or perhaps somehow reassured?

  8. . . .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.”

    Sounds like the cops could save a lot of money on these test kits and in the future just flip a coin to decide whether or not to conduct a raid. This test is wrong 70% of the time while a coin would be wrong only 50% of the time.

    1. To be sure, 70% of the positives it produces are actually false, but it’s not wrong 70% of the time.

      Probably about as accurate as most pregnancy tests. Or women claiming to be pregnant.

    2. They problem is using the test as probable cause on its own, when it *should* be used to quickly reduce suspects.

      That is too say, it *should* be used to reduce the number of samples sent to a lab. It should *not* be used in lieu of a lab.

  9. “a 70% false positive rate using this field test, with positive results obtained from substances including vanilla, peppermint, ginger, eucalyptus, cinnamon leaf, basil, thyme, lemon grass, lavender, organic oregano, organic spearmint, organic clove, patchouli, ginseng, a strip of newspaper, and even air.” The label on the test kit warns that its results “are only presumptive in nature”

    Oh, FFS! Can the Hartes sue the manufacturer and marketer of this “test kit”?

    1. That would not be libertarian. They should be free to produce this test kit and sell it to whomever they choose. And they shouldn’t be forced to label the false-positive rate on it because labels are fascism.

      /Reason Staff probably

      1. Derp. Don’t you have a vest to be in?

    2. For what? Improper user by a cop?

      Fact is, the test works as advertised, and is honest about what it is, and what it is *not*. That the cops ignored the documentation and used it improperly doesn’t sound like good grounds for suing the company.

  10. Obviously, sgt. Jimmy Wingo, deputy Mark ‘fife’ Burns, and especially sheriff Frank Denning are incompetent retards.
    But, do they realize that the unconstitutional war on weed is almost over?
    Do they even know they’ve lost?
    They dedicated their professional lives to profiting from depriving their fellow countrymen of liberty.
    Of course, they should be horse whipped for being statist slaver shitweasles whom get paid to commit crimes.
    But don’t forget, they are ‘heros’!?
    Do you ‘back the blue’??

    1. This is Kansas where the war against weed is still popular.

    2. Duke, they’re making the world a better place! I saw it in a comment on HnR!

      Maybe not for the people they’ve thrown in prison for things only they object to. Or the regular, unarmed plebes whose homes they’ve assaulted like they were invading a small banana republic. Hmm…maybe they’re only making the world a better place for themselves, which, I am assured in all 21st century media, is a less-than-noble endeavor.

      Never mind.

  11. What about the judge who allows warrants based on a test with a 70% false positive rate? I mean, that’s worse than just approving a warrant because the cop had a gut feeling that there was weed in there.

    1. Cops, lawyers and judges. All is well on the other side of the thin blue lie.

  12. The new standard is that complete incompetence is a defense against penalties for violations of civil rights.

    1. I bet that would not go well at medical malpractice trials!? In fact, it is the only time I have ever heard of it being an excuse for the abuse coming at us from their incompetent asses!!

    2. Missed the “for cops” disclaimer.

      Seriously, the SCOTUS already tied that ignorance of the law *is* an excuse if you’re a cop.

  13. “Maybe Burns and Denning were both lying, but it is at least as easy to believe they were simply uninformed, incompetent, and careless.”

    They’re cops. That should be your default assumption.

  14. Okay, maybe this case didn’t meet the strict standards necessary to win the lawsuit. But the facts presented (and undisputed) are more than enough to fire the incompetent police officers involved.

    Of course, the police union believes that police can’t be fired until they’ve been convicted of an actual crime. Funny how no other profession gets to work by that standard.

    1. Really? They got their warrant…. so the judiciary agrees that they did ok. They followed department protocol and the objectives set by the legislature….

      It seems to me that the fault lies with the people who elect drug warriors and boot lickers to run the government.

      1. *sigh*

        Sadly, there’s something to that. Of course, when one votes for a Democrat who wants to “restore sanity to our drug laws”, they laugh it off if it’s ever brought up post-election*. But yeah.

        *-under the articulate baritone expressing good intentions? An Illinois politician. What a surprise.

  15. What did the police know or whould have known about test unreliability? And why is ignorance only excused by the people who are charged with upholding the law? It’s bass ackwards.

  16. “Are you lying, or are you stupid?”

    “I’m stupid! I’m stupid!”

  17. “Incompetent rather than dishonest” in any other aspect of society would be grounds for firing the employees AND a civil suit. Only the most heavily-armed, most dangerous, most aggressive group of people in this country get to get by being incompetent.

  18. In this rerun the lying minions of the Political State invade a home, thereby menacing the owners with deadly violence (as in the recent Arizona Sharia Weapons and Tactics execution). A jury of shills, plants and second cousins set up a mock trial with the burden of proof being to rebut the assumption the parasites acted in Good Faith. In the sixties the Weathermen would call for literal heads on platters and get nowhere. But nowadays registering similar victims to vote while explaining the arithmetic of law-changing spoiler vote clout could easily be productive.
    As usual, Sullum never lets on that hordes of bungling asset-forfeiture looters might conceivably have financial and economic consequences–such as Great Depressions–as neighborhood effects.

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