LEAWOOD, Kan. (AP) — Two former CIA employees whose Kansas home was fruitlessly searched for marijuana during a two-state drug sweep claim they were illegally targeted, possibly because they had bought indoor growing supplies to raise vegetables.
Adlynn and Robert Harte sued this week to get more information about why sheriff's deputies searched their home in the upscale Kansas City suburb of Leawood last April 20 as part of Operation Constant Gardener — a sweep conducted by agencies in Kansas and Missouri that netted marijuana plants, processed marijuana, guns, growing paraphernalia and cash from several other locations.
April 20 long has been used by marijuana enthusiasts to celebrate the illegal drug and more recently by law enforcement for raids and crackdowns. But the Hartes' attorney, Cheryl Pilate, said she suspects the couple's 1,825-square-foot split level was targeted because they had bought hydroponic equipment to grow a small number of tomatoes and squash plants in their basement.
"With little or no other evidence of any illegal activity, law enforcement officers make the assumption that shoppers at the store are potential marijuana growers, even though the stores are most commonly frequented by backyard gardeners who grow organically or start seedlings indoors," the couple's lawsuit says.
The couple filed the suit this week under the Kansas Open Records Act after Johnson County and Leawood denied their initial records requests, with Leawood saying it had no relevant records. The Hartes say the public has an interest in knowing whether the sheriff's department's participation in the raids was "based on a well-founded belief of marijuana use and cultivation at the targeted addresses, or whether the raids primarily served a publicity purpose."
"If this can happen to us and we are educated and have reasonable resources, how does somebody who maybe hasn't led a perfect life supposed to be free in this country?" Adlynn Harte said in an interview Friday.
The suit filed in Johnson County District Court said the couple and their two children — a 7-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son — were "shocked and frightened" when deputies armed with assault rifles and wearing bulletproof vests pounded on the door of their home around 7:30 a.m. last April 20.
"It was just like on the cops TV shows," Robert Harte told The Associated Press. "It was like 'Zero Dark Thirty' ready to storm the compound."
During the sweep, the court filing said, the Hartes were told they had been under surveillance for months, but the couple "know of no basis for conducting such surveillance nor do they believe such surveillance would have produced any facts supporting the issuance of a search warrant."
Harte said he built the hydroponic garden with his son a couple of years ago. He said they didn't use the powerful light bulbs that are sometimes used to grow marijuana and that the family's electricity usage didn't change dramatically. Changes in utility usage can sometimes lead authorities to such operations.
When law enforcement arrived, the family had just six plants — three tomato plants, one melon plant and two butternut squash plants — growing in the basement, Harte said.
The suit also said deputies "made rude comments" and implied their son was using marijuana. A drug-sniffing dog was brought in to help, but deputies ultimately left after providing a receipt stating, "No items taken."
Pilate said no one in the Harte family uses illegal drugs and no charges were filed. The lawsuit noted Adlynn Harte, who works for a financial planning firm, and Robert Harte, who cares for the couple's children, each were required to pass rigorous background checks for their previous jobs working for the CIA in Washington, D.C. Pilate said she couldn't provide any other details about their CIA employment.
Pilate said any details gleaned from the open records suit could be used in a future federal civil rights lawsuit.
"You can't go into people's homes and conduct searches without probable cause," Pilate said.
Leawood City Administrator Scott Lambers said Friday that he couldn't comment on pending litigation. The sheriff's office also had no comment.
"Obviously with an ongoing lawsuit we are not able to talk about any details of it until it's been played out in court," said Johnson County Deputy Tom Erickson.