If you’ve been reading The Watch for a while, you know about the Harte family and how they were subjected to a SWAT raid on their home because (a) Robert Harte and his son shopped at a hydroponic gardening store to obtain supplies for a school project, and (b) Addie Harte drinks loose-leaf tea, which police (and drug field tests) somehow mistook for marijuana. The Hartes were completely innocent. The police messed up.
The Hartes then spent a small fortune navigating Kansas’s notoriously opaque open-records laws just to learn why they were raided in the first place. Once they had that information, they could finally move ahead with their lawsuit.
Last July, more than five years after the raid, a federal appeals court allowed their lawsuit to go forward. But as I pointed out here at The Watch at the time, thanks to the doctrine of qualified immunity, the family’s suit survived only on a single claim, and it would be an extremely difficult one to win — the Hartes would have to show that the police officers lied about the tea “evidence” to obtain the search warrant.
On all the other claims — the fact that the cops were unaware that field tests are notoriously unreliable and should never be relied upon as probable cause for a raid, that the cops relied on their experience and expertise to obtain the search warrant despite mistaking tea for marijuana, that local police officials had hyped up the series of raids that included the raid on the Hartes’s home as a 4/20 operation (they scheduled a news conference the same day in anticipation of their success), the lack of surveillance or corroborating investigation of the Hartes, the heavy-handed tactics despite the relatively dubious evidence, the fact that there were children in the home — on all of this, the federal appeals court found that because the police were protected by qualified immunity, the Hartes would have to show that not only were their rights violated but also that the police should have known that under clearly established law, their actions were violations of the Hartes’s rights. By a 2-1 margin, the panel of judges ruled that the Hartes had failed to do so.
That left only the claim that police lied to obtain the search warrant. Short of a recording of someone openly admitting to lying, this is a nearly impossible thing to prove. It isn’t enough even to show that the officers should have known that the substance they found in the family’s trash wasn’t marijuana. The Hartes had to show that they did know, then claimed to a judge that the tea was pot, anyway.
When the 10th Circuit panel allowed the lawsuit to go forward, there was some celebration that this was a victory for the Fourth Amendment. I pointed out at the time that it really wasn’t. This family was subjected to a violent, terrifying raid due to police incompetence, negligence and neglect. Yet in order to see a dime in damages, they’d have to prove something that’s nearly impossible. Even if they somehow won, the police officers themselves would be indemnified, removing any real deterrent to prevent this sort of thing from happening again.
Sure enough, the Hartes lost in court last week.
A Leawood couple who were mistakenly targeted in a 2012 police drug raid have lost their lawsuit against Johnson County.
A federal court jury late Tuesday afternoon found that Adlynn and Robert Harte were not entitled to any monetary damages as a result of the raid by deputies with the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office.
The Hartes can take comfort in at least one victory. They persuaded the state legislature to make police records like those associated with the Hartes’s case somewhat easier to obtain. But in the end, no one was punished for the raid on the Harte home. Not the cops who botched the investigation. Not the cops who conducted the raid. Not the supervising law enforcement officials who encouraged shortcuts with their 4/20 stunt.
Worse, they seem to have learned nothing from it.
An attorney for the sheriff’s office also released a written statement.
“On behalf of the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office and the deputies we thank the jury for their service,” said Lawrence Ferree. “The Hartes had their day in court. The system worked.“
Emphasis added, because that phrase is important. Remember, no one disputes that the Hartes are innocent of any criminal wrongdoing. No one disputes that the officers conducted a raid on their home after mistaking tea for marijuana. And no one disputes that the officers improperly used the results of notoriously unreliable field tests as probable cause for the mistaken raid, instead of sending the tea to a lab for more rigorous testing.
No one disputes any of these things. Yet the system failed to compensate the Hartes for what happened to them, and the system failed to hold any of the law enforcement officers accountable for their mistakes.
So I actually agree with the attorney for the sheriff’s office. When its own actors are accused of wrongdoing, the justice system has been designed not to dispense justice, but to put a priority on protecting police, public officials and government entities from accountability.
So, yes. The system did work. It did just what it was designed to do. And that makes these stories all the more worrying.