KANSAS CITY, Kan. (CN) - Abusive sheriff's deputies in Kansas conducted a "SWAT-style" raid on two former CIA agents' house, frightening their children, after finding used tea leaves in their trash, the former agents claim in court.
Adlynn and Robert Harte sued the Board of Commissioners of Johnson County, Johnson County Sheriff Frank Denning and seven of his deputies, in Federal Court.
The Hartes describe themselves in the lawsuit as former CIA employees with the highest level of security clearance. They claim the boneheaded raid was part of the defendants' "Operation Constant Gardener," was designed to drum up publicity for the defendants in 2012.
The Hartes had lived in the same house in Leawood, Kan., since they left the CIA in 2004. The sheriff raided them on April 20, 2012.
"Instead of finding a marijuana 'grow operation,' the deputies instead found five or six struggling plants - tomatoes, squash and melon," the complaint states. "They tested the 'plant material' and the test was negative. At that moment, whatever pretense the deputies had as to probable cause vanished. Because the so-called probable cause was based on a purchase at a hydroponic store and suspicious 'plant material,' as soon as the deputies knew that the hydroponic garden included only vegetable plants and the 'plant material' was not marijuana, they should have immediately departed." (Emphasis in complaint.)
Instead, the Hartes say, the defendants spent the next 2½ hours searching every inch of their home. During that time, the Hartes claim, they and their children - who were 13 and 7 - were forcibly held against their will and subjected to rude comments: one deputy told them they knew the Hartes had narcotics in the house.
At the end of the raid, during which a drug dog found nothing, the defendants gave the Hartes a receipt stating "no items taken."
Wondering what prompted the raid, the Hartes investigated. Through a Kansas Open Records Act request, the Hartes say, they found they had become marijuana growing suspects after Robert Harte was seen leaving a hydroponics store on Aug. 9, 2011, with a small bag of fertilizer. He bought it as an educational plant-growing project for his children.
The request also found that the defendants had gone through the Hartes' trash in the days before the raid, on April 3, 10 and 17. The Hartes say the defendants found plant material in the trash, which they assumed was marijuana.
"The affidavit for search warrant, signed by [defendant] Deputy [Mark] Burns, stated that the 'plant material' was 'thoroughly saturated' by 'some liquid,' and, based on his experience, it appeared as though it may have been processed for the 'extraction of ... THC.' [Ellipsis in complaint.]
"The deputy stated in the affidavit that the 'test is presumptive but not conclusive' for the presence of marijuana.
"The deputy did not acknowledge in the affidavit that the field tests are not to be used with saturated or liquid samples and that the 'false positive' rate of the test used is 70 percent. Many common botanical substances from the kitchen or yard also test positive, including vanilla, anise, peppermint, ginseng, eucalyptus, cinnamon, basil, lemon grass, lavender, cloves, cypress, ginger, oregano - and tea.
"The wet plant material was not submitted to the Johnson County Sheriff's Criminalistics Laboratory for testing until some days after the April 20 raid.
"On May 1, 2012, the Crime Lab tested two samples of the wet plant material, seized on April 10 and April 17, 2012, and issued a report stating: 'No controlled substances were identified.'"
The Hartes say the plant material was used tea leaves.
"Perhaps most stunning, once the defendants' so-called 'probable cause' vanished with the discovery that the hydroponic garden held only vegetable plants, they nonetheless continued to occupy and search the premises," the complaint states. "With no legal justification whatsoever, they remained for 2½ hours, holding the Hartes and their young children prisoners in their own home, ordering them to remain under armed guard in front of their picture window, while other families walked past, taking their children to school.
"Defendants' use of force was excessive. In the absence of any information suggesting any threat posed by the Hartes, defendants launched a raid with a heavily armed SWAT-type team. Although Mr. Harte offered no resistance, they ordered him to the floor, where he lay, prone and shirtless, with a deputy brandishing an assault rifle standing above him.
"Instead of admitting their error when they realized the hydroponic garden contained only vegetable plants, defendants instead tried to 'cover' themselves by searching every corner of the house for something incriminating against the Hartes. They came up empty, then tried to suggest their son had a drug problem."
The Hartes say they were so embarrassed by the raid they felt compelled to go door-to-door to their neighbors to plead their innocence and show them the receipt that said "no items taken."
The experience affected their children.
"As two former employees of the United States government, they had always reassured their son, in particular, that the country's government was upright and reliable, that it worked as it should and targeted the 'bad guys,' not innocent citizens," the complaint states. "Amidst the deputies in raid gear destroying the family's privacy and probing through every inch of their home looking for a 'grow operation' that obviously wasn't there, the Hartes could find no authentic words of reassurance for their frightened and bewildered children."
The Hartes seek $5 million in compensatory damages and $2 million in punitive damages for violations of their Fourth and 14th Amendment rights, trespass, assault, false arrest and imprisonment, abuse of process, intentional infliction of emotional distress and false light/invasion of privacy.
They are represented by Cheryl A. Pilate of with Morgan Pilate in Kansas City, Mo.Follow @@joeharris_stl
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