Last November, a Pennsylvania couple’s home was raided by police who mistakenly believed the couple’s hibiscus plants to be marijuana.  The couple is now reportedly suing Buffalo Township and Nationwide Insurance for “excessive force, false arrest, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy in their lawsuit.”

The couple’s ordeal began when Nationwide Insurance sent an agent out to assess a claim; the agent took pictures of the couple’s hibiscus plants and sent them to local police as evidence of the illegal planting and growing of marijuana.  Buffalo Township police reacted by raiding the couple’s home and leading a partially-dressed and barefoot Audrey Cramer, 66, out to their patrol car.  Her husband Edward Cramer, 69, was met with drawn guns and arrested upon returning home while his wife was still sitting, handcuffed, in the cruiser.

The Pittsburgh Tribune reports:

A Buffalo Township couple is suing the township police and the Nationwide Insurance Co. after, their lawsuit says, hibiscus plants growing in their backyard were mistaken for marijuana plants.

In a lawsuit, Edward Cramer, 69, and his wife, Audrey Cramer, 66, claim that Buffalo Township police handcuffed them both and made them sit in the back of a police car for hours last month as police ransacked their house looking for marijuana.

But rather than running a pot-growing operation, the Cramers say they grow flowering hibiscus in their backyard.

The Cramers were not charged.

The alleged treatment of the Cramers is also detailed by the Pittsburgh Tribune:

The police apparently arrived at the Cramers’ home around noon Oct. 7 while Audrey Cramer was on the second floor only partially dressed.

When she answered the door, she alleges that about a dozen officers were pointing assault-style rifles at her.

According to the complaint, Sgt. Scott Hess demanded that Cramer put her hands up and told her that he had a search warrant but would not show it to her.

Then, “Hess entered the home and went upstairs. Upon returning downstairs, he demanded that (Cramer), a 66-year-old woman, be handcuffed behind her back in a state of partial undress.”

The suit claims Cramer asked if she could put on a pair of pants next to her, and was told “in no uncertain terms” that she could not.

She was placed under arrest and read her rights.

The complaint alleges that she was walked outside and made to stand — handcuffed, in her underwear and without shoes — for 10 minutes.

The suit claims that Hess refused her request to get sandals. Police walked her down the gravel driveway, barefoot, to a police car.

The complaint alleges that she was left in the “very hot” patrol car, with her hands cuffed behind her, for four-and-a-half hours.

The high temperature that day was 82, according to the Accuweather company.

When Cramer asked Hess, “What on earth is going on,” she was informed of the police’s search for marijuana.

The suit says she explained that the plants were flowering hibiscus plants, but Hess, claiming expertise, insisted that they were marijuana.

A half-hour later, Edward Cramer arrived home to find his wife handcuffed in the police cruiser and officers searching his home.

The suit claims he was met with leveled guns, removed from his car, placed under arrest and put in the police car with his wife for more than two hours.

. . . .  “Why couldn’t the police see what it was?” Al Lindsay, the Cramers’ attorney, said in a phone interview. “Being arrested, for people like this who have no history with crime and no experience with law enforcement, this is an incredibly traumatic experience.”

. . . . According to the lawsuit, Hess admitted that he didn’t think the plants were marijuana, but confiscated them nonetheless and labeled them “tall, green, leafy, suspected marijuana plants.”

Police raids of homes for suspected marijuana that turns out to be innocuous garden plants occur surprisingly often and on scant evidence.  Tomato plants are often mistaken for marijuana, as are various other plants and weeds like okra and horsemint.

Here is a marijuana plant:

Here is hibiscus:

In 2012, a Kansas family’s hydroponic tomato garden led to a harrowing police raid.  Awakened by “thunderous” pounding on his front door, former CIA officer Bob Harte, 51, answered the door in his gym shorts, only to find his “porch was clogged with police officers” wielding drawn guns and a battering ram.

The Chicago Tribune reported at the time:

Immediately after opening the door, seven members of the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office (JCSO) pressed into the house brandishing guns and a battering ram. Bob found himself flat on floor, hands behind his head, his eyes locked on the boots of the cop standing over him with an AR-15 assault rifle. Are there kids? the officers were yelling. Where are the kids?

“And I’m laying there staring at this guy’s boots fearing for my kids’ lives, trying to tell them where my children are,” Harte recalled later in a deposition on July 9, 2015. “They are sending these guys with their guns drawn running upstairs to bust into my children’s house, bedroom, wake them out of bed.”

Harte’s wife, Addie, bolted downstairs with the children. The Hartes’ son put his hands up when he saw the guns. The family of four were eventually placed on a couch as police continued to search the property. The officers would only say they were searching for narcotics.

. . . . The April 20, 2012, raid would not furnish JCSO with the desired arrests and publicity (a news conference had already been planned for the afternoon.) But it would cause considerable embarrassment. Not only were the Hartes upstanding citizens with clean records, they were also both former Central Intelligence Agency officers. And they were not weed growers. Rather, the quick-trigger suspicion of law enforcement had snagged on — it would later turn out — tea leaves and a struggling tomato plant.

. . . . “Our family will never be the same,” Addie told The Post. “If this can happen to us, everybody in the country needs to be afraid,” Bob added.

The Hartes apparently got caught up in an illogical “sting” that involved police officers recording the license plate numbers of cars in the parking lot of hydroponic garden stores.  The logic apparently went that illicit pot growers often use hydroponic gardens, so anyone involved in hydroponic gardening was suspect.

This line of thinking completely ignores the rising number of people (myself included) who are growing their own produce at home.  One in three households are growing at least some of their own produce.  “Operation Constant Gardner,” however, didn’t take these figures into account as they associated hydroponic home gardeners with drug lords.

The Chicago Tribune continued:

The events leading to the raid began a year earlier, according to court documents. Starting in 1997, Sgt. James Wingo of the Missouri State Highway Patrol started pulling surveillance shifts in the parking lots of hydroponic garden stores around the state. The project’s logic, as Wingo explained in a 2011 letter to other law enforcement agencies, was that the stores “sell items that are consistently found in indoor marijuana growing operations.” As customers came and went, Wingo would note their license plate information and enter names into a database.

In 2011, Wingo conceived of “Operation Constant Gardener.” In his letter to law enforcement, Wingo stated he would “supply your agency with the names of these customers that are within your jurisdiction. This will give your agency two weeks to initiate brief investigation” to “obtain probable cause for a search warrant.” Then, per Wingo’s plan, the various agencies would all strike on the same day — April 20. Wingo chose the timing due to the date’s association with weed life: it was a date “celebrated in that community much as we celebrate Christmas.” Wingo promised the operation would be a “significant media event.”

In two weeks, local law enforcement was apparently unable to discover that the Hartes, both former CIA agents, had no criminal record whatsoever, no connections to known drug rings, no suspicious activity of any kind.  The sole reason they were targeted was their purchase of hydroponic gardening equipment.

Not only are innocent people being caught up by over-zealous police in search of illicit marijuana plants, but the treatment of these innocent, tax-paying citizens is beyond the pale.  I understand that law enforcement may not want to tip-off actual criminals and may not therefore be willing to knock on someone’s door and politely inquire about the occupants’ gardening habits, but why not forward photos of suspicious hibiscus and tomato plants to a botanist, to the DEA, or even to any home gardener?

But no.  Law enforcement shows up, guns drawn and battering rams at the ready, herding innocent, terrified, half-dressed persons from their home, then ransacking their home without bothering to find out what the “suspicious” plants actually are.

In one 2013 case, a full SWAT team raided a communal farm in Texas, convinced they were growing marijuana.  They were not; they were growing tomatoes and other produce to sustain the farm’s inhabitants.

NBC5 reported at the time:

The Garden of Eden, where members live and grow their own food, was raided in August 2013 by a police SWAT team after a detective obtained a warrant to search for marijuana.

The property is located in the 7000 block of Mansfield Cardinal Road.

The lawsuit claims that police were heavy handed, never had probable cause to raid the facility and based the search largely on an anonymous tip and a flyover, which spotted what looked like marijuana plants.

The plants turned out to be tomatoes.

Here is a tomato seedling:

And it’s not just tomato plants that confuse police; apparently, okra is also suspicious.  In 2014, a Georgia man was startled to find a helicopter hovering over his house and police, replete with a drug-sniffing dog, on his porch.

WSB2 reported at the time:

A Cartersville man is upset after he said investigators mistook a garden full of okra for marijuana plants.

The man growing the popular Southern food said a helicopter woke him up Wednesday and then he had deputies show up at his door.

“I was scared actually, at first, because I didn’t know what was happening,” said homeowner Dwayne Perry.

All he noticed was that there was a chopper sitting unusually low over his house, then Bartow County deputies and a K-9 unit appeared at his doorstep in minutes.

“They were strapped to the gills,” Perry said.

It turned out, that helicopter was from the Governor’s Task Force for drug suppression and they were out looking for domestic cannabis plants and spotted the tree and plants.

“Instead, it’s okra and maybe a bush on the end of the house,” Perry said.

Channel 2’s Carl Willis called the Georgia State Patrol, who operates the task force, for an explanation. They sent an evidence photo.

“We’ve not been able to identify it as of yet. But it did have quite a number of characteristics that were similar to a cannabis plant,” said Georgia State Patrol Capt. Kermit Stokes.

Perry said his plants had five leaves, not seven like on the cannabis plant. He said a mistake like this shouldn’t happen.

“Here I am, at home and retired and you know I do the right thing,” Perry said. “Then they come to my house strapped with weapons for no reason. It ain’t right.”

The authorities apologized on the scene and again when Willis called.

“If we disturbed them in any manner, that’s not our intent. Our intent is to go out and do our job and do it to the best of our ability,” Stokes said.

Here is okra:

Taxpayer dollars are thrown away when law enforcement doesn’t first determine if a raid, SWAT or otherwise, is even worthwhile.

There are reports of police being called about suspicious plants that didn’t result in trauma for the unjustly accused.  In one case, a building super in Brooklyn called the police about suspicious plants on the roof of his building; police showed up and determined the plants were tomatoes.  In another, police were tipped off that someone was growing marijuana in a city park and seized 400 plants that turned out to be horsemint.

Here is horsemint:

In these cases, however, the area containing the suspicious tomatoes and horsemint were public areas.  There was no home to raid, no homeowner to terrorize.  Instead, the police showed up, poked around, and in one case seized hundreds of horsemint plants, but there was no over-zealous or demeaning treatment of completely innocent people.

Half-dressed and barefoot 66-year-old Audrey Cramer was clearly not a threat to law enforcement officers on the scene, so why humiliate and traumatize her in the manner they did?  As Bob Harte noted, if this can happen to he and his wife, it can happen to anyone . . . or at least to the one in three Americans who grow their own produce.