Crime

Leawood couple’s lawsuit over mistaken police drug raid is reinstated after appeal

Robert Harte of Leawood suspected for a year that the reason a Johnson County sheriff’s tactical team searched their home for drugs was their visit to a hydroponics store as part of a project with his son to grow indoor tomatoes.
Robert Harte of Leawood suspected for a year that the reason a Johnson County sheriff’s tactical team searched their home for drugs was their visit to a hydroponics store as part of a project with his son to grow indoor tomatoes. deulitt@kcstar.com

A Leawood couple’s lawsuit against the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office over a raid of their home by heavily armed deputies was reinstated Tuesday by a federal appeals court.

Robert and Adlynn Harte had filed suit alleging that they were subjected to an unlawful search of their home in 2012 based on the erroneous belief that they were growing marijuana.

A federal judge dismissed the suit in 2015, and the Hartes appealed.

On Tuesday, a three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the judge’s decision on some issues but overturned the decision pertaining to the Hartes’ claim that they were the victims of an unlawful search and seizure.

The court ruled the Hartes can pursue their claim that one or more deputies lied about evidence when they obtained a search warrant.

The attorney for the sheriff’s office said they were reviewing the decision, but would have no comment.

Attorney Cheryl Pilate, who represents the Hartes, said in a written statement that the decision was a “huge and significant victory, both for the Hartes and the Fourth Amendment.”

“The Hartes are elated with the outcome of their appeal and delighted that this long-awaited day has arrived,” Pilate said. “The appeals court obviously carefully scrutinized the large factual record.”

According to the lawsuit, the sheriff’s department targeted the Hartes, both former CIA employees, after Robert Harte was seen with their two children leaving a store that sold hydroponic gardening equipment.

Based on that observation and the belief that such equipment is often used in home marijuana growing operations, deputies subsequently searched the couple’s household trash.

Vegetable material found in the trash actually was loose tea leaves, according to the suit. Deputies later said that the vegetation tested positive for marijuana based on a field test.

But it was never submitted to a laboratory for testing.

Instead, a search warrant was obtained and officers armed with assault rifles conducted a raid on the couple’s home while their children, a seventh-grader and a kindergartner, were present.

The raid was timed to coincide with a planned press conference about the effort to fight marijuana trafficking.

But after a 2  1/2 -hour search by deputies and a trained dog, all they found were the tomato plants the family was growing with the hydroponic equipment.

“Law-abiding tea drinkers and gardeners beware: One visit to a garden store and some loose tea leaves in your trash may subject you to an early-morning, SWAT-style raid, complete with battering ram, bulletproof vests, and assault rifles,” Judge Carlos Lucero wrote in Tuesday’s court of appeals ruling. “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. The Fourth Amendment does not condone this conduct, and neither can I.”

Tony Rizzo: 816-234-4435, @trizzkc

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