Surveillance Leads Police to Tomato Bust

You probably don’t really care about surveillance.

You should.

Most people find surveillance a little creepy. They don’t particularly like the idea of being watched. Even so, they don’t really care about surveillance when push comes to shove – at least not enough to really protest. There exists this pervasive, “Well, I don’t really have anything to hide, so it won’t ever really effect me,” mentality.

But it just might effect you. Even if you never do anything wrong.

On April 20, 2012, a fully armed team of seven Johnson County Sheriff’s Office deputies stormed into the Leawood, Kansas, home of  Bob Harte. They were looking for marijuana.

They didn’t find any.

But they did find Harte’s hydroponic tomato garden down in the basement.

So, how did the Harte family end up in police crosshairs?

Surveillance.

According to the Chicago Tribune, beginning the late 1990s, the Missouri State Highway Patrol set up surveillance in the parking lots of hydroponic garden stores around the state. Sgt. James Wingo reasoned that the stores “sell items that are consistently found in indoor marijuana growing operations.” So, officers sat in store parking lots entering license plate numbers of every customer into a database.

In 2011, Wingo came up with a great way to use all of this stored license plate data.  In a letter to police departments across the state, Wingo said 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.”

When Harte decided it would be fun to do a project with his son, and raise tomatoes and other veggies in a hydroponic garden, he headed off to the local hydroponic garden store. His licence plate ended up in that state police database.

And he became a suspect.

When the JCSO got Harte’s information from the highway patrol, detectives dug through the family’s trash. They found “wet glob vegetation.” The sheriff’s office claimed the substance field-tested positive for marijuana. Officers didn’t bother to take photos of the results or send the material to a laboratory for confirmation, but they did use it as probable cause to get a warrant.

As it turns out, the “wet glob vegetation” was tea.

This shows how easily surveillance can go wrong. And this was just some cops sitting in parking lots. Imagine if police had set up automatic license plate readers to record the license plate of every car that went into the parking lot. Or a mobile surveillance camera operating 24-7. Even people turning around in the parking lot would get caught up in the dragnet.

People should not become suspects just because they drive into a particular parking lot, or into a particular neighborhood, or because somebody monitoring a camera finds their behavior “suspicious.”

The proliferation of surveillance technology magnifies the potential abuses of surveillance, as this story illustrates.

So, even if you don’t have anything to hide, you could easily find yourself caught in a surveillance dragnet.

This underscores the importance of ensuring all surveillance programs are operated with transparency and proper oversight.  Passage of a local ordinance can take the first step toward limiting the unchecked use of surveillance technologies that violate basic privacy rights and feed into a broader national surveillance state. This proposed ordinance requires law enforcement agencies to create a surveillance policy and get approval from their local governing body before obtaining any type of surveillance technology.

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