Federal Judge Rules on Homeowners’ Claim that Tea Leaves Did Not Provide Probable Cause for Drug Raid

tea leavesPolice are generally not permitted to search a person or their premises, or to seize their property, unless they obtain a warrant from a judge after demonstrating probable cause to believe a search will yield evidence related to a criminal investigation. The “War on Drugs” has led to some highly creative methods of alleging probable cause, as demonstrated by a civil lawsuit filed against a county sheriff’s department for civil rights violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. A judge ruled in late 2015 that the defendants had demonstrated probable cause to justify the 2012 raid on the plaintiffs’ home, which turned up no evidence of drugs whatsoever. Harte, et al. v. Bd. of Comms. Of Johnson County, Kan., No. 2:13-cv-02586, mem. Order (D. Kan., Dec. 18, 2015). This is not a final order regarding probable cause but instead a summary judgment order holding that probable cause was enough for the defendants to avoid civil liability.

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that a search warrant requires probable cause, “supported by Oath or affirmation,” along with a description of “the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” Police are generally limited to searching the areas identified in a warrant for specific contraband or other items. An officer cannot expand the scope of a search without obtaining an amended warrant, unless an exception to the warrant requirement applies. Anything seized by police that is outside the scope of the warrant and that does not fall under an exception may not be used against the defendant.

Sheriff’s deputies in Johnson County, Kansas, reportedly dressed in SWAT gear, executed a search warrant on the Harte plaintiffs’ home in late April 2012. The warrant allowed them to search for marijuana and drug paraphernalia. Two hours of searching the residence failed to yield any illegal drugs or drug paraphernalia, and no charges were filed. The plaintiffs were reportedly both former employees of the CIA, and they undertook to find out why their home had been raided by heavily armed officers.

It took more than a year to get information about the search warrant from the sheriff’s department, and the sequence of events, as laid out by the court, seems almost comical. A Missouri State Highway Patrol officer, while staking out a gardening store in August 2011, observed the plaintiff and his two children leaving the store with a bag of merchandise. Based on this information, sheriff’s deputies collected trash bags from the plaintiffs’ house on three occasions in early- to mid-April 2012. Each time, they found “saturated plant material,” Harte, mem. order at 3, which allegedly tested positive for THC in a field test. This was the evidence that led to the search warrant, despite field testing kits’ extensive record of false positives. The “saturated plant material” was actually used tea leaves.

The plaintiffs sued the sheriff’s department and other law enforcement officers and agencies for civil rights violations. The court ultimately granted a defense motion for summary judgment, partly on qualified immunity grounds. Since this was a civil lawsuit, the plaintiffs had the burden of establishing that the warrant lacked probable cause. The court held that they failed to meet this burden.

These blog posts are meant to be illustrative only. Unless expressly stated to the contrary herein, these matters are not the result of any legal work of Michael J. Brown, but are used to communicate a particular point of view. Michael J. Brown does not claim credit for any legal work done by any lawyer or law firm either generally or specifically, with respect to the matters contained in this blog.

Board-certified drug crime lawyer Michael J. Brown has fought for the rights of people charged with alleged offenses in West Texas state and federal courts for over two decades. To schedule a confidential consultation with a knowledgeable and skilled advocate, contact us today online or at (432) 687-5157.

More Blog Posts:

Police Apprehend Fugitives by Tracking Use of Online Music, Video Streaming Services, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, October 30, 2015

Police Officer Helps Relative Obtain Illegal Drugs, then Uses that Information to Obtain a Search Warrant, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, December 17, 2014

Fake Twitter Account in Mayor’s Name Leads to Police Raid, Drug Charges, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, December 1, 2014

Photo credit: xxolgaxx [Public domain, CC0 1.0], via Pixabay.