(Getty/Nicholas Kamm)

Cops abuse senior couple mistaking hibiscus for marijuana

Trained drug detection officers in Pennsylvania couldn’t tell the difference between hibiscus plants and pot plants


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Phillip Smith
November 26, 2017 2:59pm (UTC)
This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNet

A Buffalo Township, Pennsylvania couple has filed a lawsuit against township police and an insurance company in the wake of a misbegotten drug raid that netted only hibiscus plants.

Edward Cramer, 69, and his wife, Audrey Cramer, 66, were quietly enjoying their golden years this fall when they called their insurance company about a neighbor's tree that had fallen on their property. That's when things started going wacky.

The insurance company, Nationwide Mutual Insurance, sent its local agent, Jonathan Yeamans, to the Cramers' place, but Yeamans apparently had more than insurance claims on his mind. According to the lawsuit, Yeamans surreptitiously took photos of flowering hibiscus plants in the backyard, then sent them to local police as evidence of an illegal marijuana grow.

The Cramers claim that Yeamans "intentionally photographed the flowering hibiscus plants in such a manner as not to reveal that they had flowers on them so that they would appear to resemble marijuana plants."

Yeamans' photos went to Buffalo Township Officer Jeffrey Sneddon, who claimed to have expertise in identifying marijuana, and who, after incorrectly identifying the plants as marijuana, applied for and received a search warrant for the Cramers' property.

And the raid was on! According to the lawsuit, Audrey Cramer was home alone, upstairs and only partially dressed when police arrived around noon on October 7. She went downstairs to open the door, only to be confronted by a dozen or so officers pointing assault rifles at her.

The lead officer, Sgt. Scott Hess, ordered Mrs. Cramer to put her hands up and told her he had a search warrant, but refused to show it to her, the complaint alleges.

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."

Mrs. Cramer asked police if she could put on a pair of nearby pants, but was told "in no uncertain terms," that she could not. She was instead placed under arrest and read her rights.

Police then walked her outside the house and left her standing, handcuffed, in her underwear in public for 10 minutes, before taking her, barefoot, down a gravel driveway to a police car. The suit claims police refused her request to let her put on sandals.

When Mrs. Cramer asked Hess "What on earth is going on?" he told her police were searching for marijuana. She explained that the plants in question were hibiscus, not marijuana, but Hess, also claiming drug identification expertise, insisted they were indeed pot plants.

She spent the next 4.5 hours in a "very hot" patrol car, her hands cuffed behind her.

Edward Cramer returned home in the midst of the raid, only to be met by leveled police guns, removed from his car, arrested, and placed in the police car with his wife for the next two hours. According to the lawsuit, Cramer repeatedly asked permission to show police that the plants were hibiscus, with the flowers clearly in bloom, to no avail.

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

Police released the couple from the patrol car only after an hours-long search failed to turn up any marijuana in the home or the yard. The lawsuit says Sgt. Hess seized the hibiscus plants even though he admitted he didn't think they were pot plants, and labeled them "tall, green, leafy suspected marijuana plants."

While police didn't charge the Cramers with any crimes, the couple's experience was traumatic enough for them to seek medical treatment, and Edward Cramer has been seeing a trauma therapist.

Now, with their lawsuit filed Thursday, the Cramers want justice. The suit, filed in Butler County Court, names Nationwide, Nationwide agent Yeamans, Buffalo Township, and three of its police officers, and alleges police use of excessive force, false arrest, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy.

Neither Buffalo Township nor Nationwide has been willing to comment on the case.

To add insult to injury, the Cramers got an October 26 letter from Nationwide informing them that marijuana had been found on their property and if they failed to remove the plants, Nationwide would cancel their insurance policy.

The Cramers are seeking "monetary and compensatory damages," as well as attorneys fees and court costs.

Just another day in the war on plants.

Phillip Smith is editor of the AlterNet Drug Reporter and author of the Drug War Chronicle.

Phillip Smith

Phillip Smith is a senior writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent of Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has been a drug policy journalist for the past two decades. He is the longtime author of the Drug War Chronicle, the online publication of the non-profit StopTheDrugWar.org, and has been the editor of AlterNet’s Drug Reporter since 2015. He was awarded the Drug Policy Alliance’s Edwin M. Brecher Award for Excellence in Media in 2013.

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