- Associated Press - Monday, December 21, 2015

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) - A suburban Kansas City couple who sued authorities after a SWAT-style raid of their home found no marijuana has lost their civil lawsuit in a case that spurred Kansas lawmakers last year to make it easier for the public to access police investigative records.

A federal judge ruled late Friday that authorities had probable cause for the warrant to search the Leawood home of Robert and Adlynn Harte in 2012 after field tests of wet tea leaves found in their trash falsely tested positive for marijuana. The Johnson County Sheriff’s Office had sifted through their trash based on information that Robert Harte and his two children had left a Kansas City, Missouri, hydroponics store seven months earlier carrying a small bag.

U.S. District Judge John Lungstrum concluded no constitutional violations occurred and that the officers’ conduct in the search was lawful and reasonable. Despite the loss in their case, the couple’s legal fight has already had an impact far beyond the litigation.

The couple went on a crusade to find what led to the search, which turned up no evidence and produced no charges. They spent $25,000 in legal costs to get probable-cause affidavit, a document typically used to justify arrests or searches.

“They kept hitting roadblocks and discovered that the Kansas open records law was not nearly as open as it should have been and they felt very strongly about opening that up for public access,” said their attorney, Cheryl Pilate.

State Rep. John Rubin, the Republican chairman of the House corrections and juvenile justice committee, said the case highlighted a larger issue.

“I didn’t think it was right that it took the Hartes a year and $25,000 or more in their own money in legal fees to obtain the information, the probable cause affidavit, that supported the warrant that allowed the Johnson County Sheriff’s Department to come into their home with weapons drawn,” Rubin said.

His research found that Kansas at the time was out of step with every other state.

“Now the public has access to probable-cause affidavits without having to spend the kind of money the Hartes had to spend,” said Max Kautsch, legal counsel for the Kansas Press Association. “It is extremely significant. Now the presumption is that the probable cause affidavits are open. Before, the presumption was that they were closed.”

The judge also noted in his decision that the Hartes’ lawsuit prompted the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office to require lab confirmation of suspected drug material.

Lawrence Ferree, the attorney who represented Johnson County and the other defendants, said the judge wrote a very thorough opinion and appropriately applied the law to the facts.

The Hartes’ attorney said they are studying the decision and probably will appeal.

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