July 26, 2017 2:39PM

When Police Misread Tea Leaves They Violate the Fourth Amendment

Police militarization and excessive force have become increasingly pressing issues in American society. Fortunately, the Denver-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit -- Justice Neil Gorsuch's old stomping ground -- held yesterday that innocent victims of improper police procedures during dynamic drug raids have some protections. Even if the court didn't fully address the issues Cato raised in our brief, the ruling in Harte v. Board of Commissioners of Johnson County, Kansas is a step forward.

In 2011, Robert Harte and his two children visited a garden store to buy tomatoes for his 13-year old son’s school project. Little did they know that Sergeant James Wingo of the Missouri State Highway Patrol was watching the store and recording the license plate numbers of the visitors, assuming that they were there to buy marijuana despite little evidence for that assumption. The Johnson County Sheriff’s Office then examined the Hartes’ trash on two occasions, finding about an ounce of “saturated plant material.” Because they evidently couldn’t tell the difference between tea and marijuana, they field-tested the substance, which tested positive for marijuana.

In an inspiring display, the police launched a military-style raid the Hartes’ home. At 7:30 in the morning, they pounded on the Hartes’ door, forced Mr. Harte to the ground when he answered, and searched their home for three hours. As it became increasingly clear that there was no marijuana in the house, the police started to search for “any kind of criminal activity,” a far greater sweep than what a warrant to search for “marijuana” and “drug paraphernalia” allows. Heaping further indignities on the family, the officers also left canine units in the house longer than necessary to give them extra training. The police apparently wanted to turn lemons into lemonade by retroactively turning an early-morning drug raid -- that didn’t find any drugs, lest we forget -- into a training exercise.

After the district court granted summary judgment for the police, the Hartes appealed and Cato filed an amicus brief. We argued that the police violated an important Fourth Amendment rule that goes back to the roots of English common law by failing to knock and announce their presence in anything but a literal sense. They also exceeded the scope of their warrant to look for “any criminal activity” instead of just drugs. We urged the Tenth Circuit to reverse the district court, clarify the Fourth Amendment standard for assessing police raids, and remand for further proceedings.

The Tenth Circuit mostly agreed with Cato on the Fourth Amendment issue. Two judges on the three-judge panel found that the district court had been wrong to grant summary judgment to the police on the search and seizure issue, with Judge Carlos Lucero alluding briefly to the knock-and-announce requirement. It was a convoluted opinion that took a long time to produce because of each judge writing separately and different sets of judges coming together on different parts of the ruling. Most importantly, Judge Gregory Phillips, joined by Judge Lucero, found that “what the deputies learned early on in the search dissipated any probable cause to continue searching.” 

Ultimately, the judges only discussed in passing the police-militarization and general-warrant concerns raised by Cato and sided with the police on the excessive-force claims. Nevertheless, the court held that what the Hartes experienced qualified as unreasonable search and seizure -- and also let them continue with their state-law claims -- so Harte v. Board of Commissioners represents a positive development in the jurisprudence surrounding dynamic police raids.