DEA Raided This Woman's House After She Shopped At A Garden Store

04/12/2014 07:30 am ET | Updated Apr 15, 2014

Angela Kirking never thought shopping for garden supplies would lead to agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration waking her up with guns drawn, but that's what happened last October.

"I bought a bottle of organic fertilizer, a 16-ounce bottle," said Kirking, a 46-year-old face-paint artist. "Three weeks later I was raided by DEA."

The DEA is refusing to answer questions about the law enforcement operation targeting an Illinois garden store that has netted Kirking and at least 10 other people. But Kirking and her lawyer contend it's a case of misplaced priorities and federal overreach. They're asking why the DEA is treating ordinary customers of a garden store selling hydroponic equipment as if they were major drug dealers.

The Oct. 11, 2013, raid on Kirking's house, first reported by Patch, involved four DEA agents and five Shorewood, Ill., police officers, according to a police report. Its alleged yield from Kirking's art room, whose entrance is guarded by beads: 9.3 grams of marijuana, or less than one-third of an ounce.

Now Kirking's defense lawyer, former Will County (Ill.) prosecutor Jeff Tomczak, is trying to have the search warrant and the two misdemeanor charges it produced thrown out.

Kirking's visit to the garden store, Midwest Hydroganics, was the predicate for the whole investigation of her, according to Tomczak. "100 percent nothing else," he said, calling that far too thin a thread on which to base a search warrant.

In the search warrant application, a Braidwood, Ill., police officer assigned to the DEA, Donn Kaminski, wrote that he had observed Kirking exit the garden store "carrying a green plastic bag containing unknown items." Kaminski stated he had "previously conducted numerous investigations that involved the surveillance of Midwest Hydroganics and persons purchasing items at Midwest Hydroganics, which has led to the arrest of suspects for production of cannabis sativa plants and production of cannabis."

A man answering the phone at the Midwest Hydroganics store declined to comment on the DEA operation.

Kaminski wrote that he then sifted through Kirking's household trash, detecting "a strong odor of green cannabis" in one plastic trash bag, and compared her home's electrical bill to that of her neighbors, finding that it was higher. Another officer conducted a field test on a green plant stem, which allegedly tested positive for marijuana. That was enough for a judge to sign a warrant.

An application for a search warrant for a different Midwest Hydroganics customer, Tomczak noted, stated that police had found no evidence of marijuana plant residue in the trash -- and suggested that was evidence a suspect was covering up his marijuana grow.

The result in Kirking's case was an early morning raid on her home.

"They were in full attack mode, came at me guns raised, flashlights. Just like you see in the movies," Kirking said. "I had to ask them for a warrant. I said, 'Who are you,' when they came in the bedroom. Somebody said, 'DEA.'"

A spokesman for the Will County State's Attorney described Kirking's case as just one among many resulting from surveillance of the store.

"There are 11 total cases based upon search warrants that were written and charged based upon this type of surveillance in Will County by the DEA," said Charles Pelkie, director of public affairs for the state's attorney's office. "Eleven of those cases are charged, eight have been prosecuted in Will County."

Kirking's alleged marijuana stash was paltry. But Pelkie said other searches have produced more serious amounts. The largest of these in Will County, he said, yielded 120 marijuana plants, 290,510 grams of cannabis and 178 Ecstasy pills. That raid has resulted in one person pleading guilty to a felony.

Pelkie said the Will County State's Attorney makes its decisions on charges when the DEA presents its evidence. He refused to comment on whether targeting a garden store was the best use of the agency's resources.

"With regard to how the DEA conducts its investigations, you really have to refer to them," said Pelkie.

But on that count the federal agency is not being helpful. Special Agent Owen Putman, spokesman for the DEA's Chicago Division, declined via email to comment on the operation targeting Midwest Hydroganics.

The Illinois law enforcement operation seems to follow the same pattern as a two-state operation out of Kansas City, Mo., that also involved the DEA. The effort dubbed "Operation Constant Gardener," led by the Missouri State Highway Patrol, also staked out hydroponic garden stores and eventually arrested 14 people. To maximize publicity, those raids happened on April 20 of 2011 and 2012 -- 4/20, also known as "Weed Day."

After the initial favorable headlines, however, the other side of Operation Constant Gardener came into focus: Innocent gardeners had been harassed, and garden stores saw diminished business.

In the Kansas City suburb of Leawood, Kan., law enforcement agents clad in bulletproof vests and carrying assault rifles raided the home of a couple and their two children. The parents turned out to be former CIA employees. Even after no marijuana was found, police allegedly suggested to Adlynn and Robert Harte that perhaps their 13-year-old son used marijuana.

"These folks have never used drugs at all. They have the cleanest backgrounds ever," said the couple's lawyer, Cheryl Pilate. "They used a SWAT team -- or a bunch of deputies dressed up like SWAT officers using SWAT tactics -- which was totally inappropriate."

Pilate said the couple's ordeal started after the husband went to the hydroponic garden store to buy supplies for an educational indoor vegetable garden he planted with his son. The Hartes are now suing for damages.

In many cases, Pilate argues, the police rely on inaccurate and unreliable field tests like those used to identify alleged traces of marijuana in suspects' trash. Her clients contend in their lawsuit that the supposed "marijuana" found in their trash was actually discarded tea leaves.

Pilate said police departments are quick to put out press releases when such raids turn up drugs or marijuana plants.

"What you hear about are the people who are charged. You generally don't hear about the people who aren't," said Pilate.

In Illinois, the Will County State's Attorney has so far not answered HuffPost's request for statistics on how many search warrants were executed as part of the Midwest Hydroganics investigation that did not result in prosecutions.

Kirking, the face-paint artist who faces two misdemeanor charges for the small amount of marijuana found in her home, is hopeful the judge in her case will throw out the warrant. She thinks the garden store operation should stop.

"You feel very violated. I mean extremely violated. My husband and I were in shock for days afterwards -- how did this happen?" she said. "It's sad that they are resorting to this method."

HuffPost Readers: Have you encountered problems after shopping at a hydroponic garden store? Contact Matt Sledge by emailing sledge@huffingtonpost.com.

Also on HuffPost:

  • 1 Former President Bill Clinton
    AP
  • Bill "Didn't Inhale" Clinton has supported decriminalizing marijuana for more than a decade and more recently has spoken out against the war on drugs.

    “I think that most small amounts of marijuana have been decriminalized in some places, and should be," he said back in 2000 in an interview with Rolling Stone. "We really need a re-examination of our entire policy on imprisonment.”

    He's since spoken about the issue of marijuana and drug prohibition a number of times. Last year, he appeared in the documentary, "Breaking the Taboo," where he argued that the war on drugs has been a failure.
  • 2 Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)
    AP
  • Paul exhibited his libertarian tendencies earlier this year when he explained that he'd favor reforming marijuana laws to either decriminalize or reduce penalties for possession.

    “I don't want to promote that but I also don't want to put people in jail who make a mistake," Paul said. "There are a lot of young people who do this and then later on in their twenties they grow up and get married and they quit doing things like this. I don't want to put them in jail and ruin their lives."

  • 3 Former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas)
  • As a congressman, Paul took his opposition to marijuana and drug prohibition a step farther than his son has so far. He supported a number of bills that would have removed the plant from its current status as a Schedule I substance under federal law, where it is considered alongside heroin and PCP. Because his history on the topic is so expansive, just take a look at the video to the left for a selection of his comments.
  • 4 Evangelist Pat Robertson
    AP
  • While the 83-year-old Robertson may say a lot of things that make him sound like a kooky old man, he's also made a few remarks to endear himself to marijuana advocates.

    "I really believe we should treat marijuana the way we treat beverage alcohol," Robertson said in an interview with The New York Times in 2012. "I've never used marijuana and I don't intend to, but it's just one of those things that I think: this war on drugs just hasn't succeeded."

    Robertson has made similar remarks on his "700 Club" show before, but the Times, like many others, perhaps felt they must have misheard him.
  • 5 New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg
    Getty Images
  • In a state of the city address earlier this year, Bloomberg made it clear that he supported a promise by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) to push marijuana decriminalization. "I support Governor Cuomo's proposal to make possession of small amounts of marijuana a violation, rather than a misdemeanor, and we'll work to help him pass it." A similar effort specific to NYC has made some progress, but faces an unclear path forward with New York lawmakers.
  • 6 Actor Bryan Cranston
    Getty Images
  • Some may think of Cranston as more of a meth guy thanks to Walter White, his character on AMC's hit show "Breaking Bad," but in real life he's spoken out against current pot laws, suggesting that recreational marijuana use isn't a big deal -- and shouldn't be treated like it.

    “[T]o me, marijuana is no different than wine," he said in an interview with High Times. "It's a drug of choice. It's meant to alter your current state -- and that's not a bad thing. It's ridiculous that marijuana is still illegal. We're still fighting for it ... It comes down to individual decision-making. There are millions of people who smoke pot on a social basis and don't become criminals. So stop with that argument -- it doesn't work.”

    [H/T Marijuana Majority]
  • 7 Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson (R)
    AP
  • Unlike many politicians, Johnson, a Libertarian presidential candidate in 2012, has unabashedly admitted using marijuana. But beyond his personal history with pot, he's been an outspoken advocate for legalizing and taxing it.

    From his campaign platform:

    "By managing marijuana like alcohol and tobacco - regulating, taxing and enforcing its lawful use - America will be better off. The billions saved on marijuana interdiction, along with the billions captured as legal revenue, can be redirected against the individuals committing real crimes against society."
  • 8 Author Stephen King
    Getty Images
  • King hasn't been shy about advocating for a legal marijuana industry that could give easy access to recreational users and revenue to the states.

    “Marijuana should not only be legal, I think it should be a cottage industry," he said in an interview with High Times. "My wife says, and I agree with her, that what would be really great for Maine would be to legalize dope completely and set up dope stores the way that there are state-run liquor stores.”

    [H/T Marijuana Majority]
  • 9 Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.)
    Getty Images
  • Rohrabacher was a co-sponsor of the 2013 "Respect State Marijuana Laws Act," which seeks to protect marijuana users or businesses acting legally according to state marijuana laws from being prosecuted under the federal Controlled Substances Act.

    While marijuana has been made legal for various uses in a number of states, the Obama administration continues to enforce federal laws across the nation. This has led to numerous raids of marijuana-based businesses, as well as prosecutions of growers and other people involved in pot.

  • 10 Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska)
    AP
  • Young was also a co-sponsor of the 2013 "Respect State Marijuana Laws Act."
  • 11 Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.)
    Getty Images
  • Amash was also a co-sponsor of the "Respect State Marijuana Laws Act."
  • 12 Glenn Beck
    AP
  • Back in 2009, when Beck had a Fox News show, he suggested that marijuana legalization could be a worthwhile solution to raging drug violence on the nation's border with Mexico.

    "I think it's about time we legalize marijuana," he said. "We have to make a choice in this country. We either put people who are smoking marijuana behind bars or we legalize it, but this little game we're playing in the middle is not helping us, it is not helping Mexico and it is causing massive violence on our southern border."
  • 13 Billionaire Richard Branson
    AP
  • From an op-ed by Branson arguing for an end to the war on drugs:

    "Decriminalization does not result in increased drug use. Portugal's 10 year experiment shows clearly that enough is enough. It is time to end the war on drugs worldwide. We must stop criminalising drug users. Health and treatment should be offered to drug users - not prison. Bad drugs policies affect literally hundreds of thousands of individuals and communities across the world. We need to provide medical help to those that have problematic use - not criminal retribution."
  • 14 GOP Mega-Donor David Koch
    AP
  • Koch may have funneled countless dollars to conservative candidates who oppose reforming marijuana laws, but back in 1980, when he was the vice presidential candidate for the Libertarian Party, he suggested that it was "ridiculous" to consider people who smoked pot "criminals."
  • 15 Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R)
    Getty Images
  • In 2010, Perry told Jon Stewart that he believed in a federalist approach to marijuana laws -- that is, to allow states to determine their own approach and to tell the federal government to butt out. He's since suggested he'd be willing to support decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana.
  • 16 Comedy Central's Jon Stewart
    Getty Images
  • Stewart has made a habit of taking down politicians who exhibit an uncompromising stance on marijuana prohibition. In 2012, Stewart took New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) to task for vetoing a marijuana decriminalization bill.

    “Alright, as much as I disagree, I don’t think marijuana should be illegal, but it is illegal on the federal level," Stewart began. "Christie is a former prosecutor, a man of conviction, of principle, doesn’t believe that the state should supersede federal law."

    The praise in the second sentence is a good sign that Stewart is about to shred Christie. Watch the rest of his takedown above.
  • 17 Actor Jack Nicholson
    AP
  • In an interview with the UK's Daily Mail in 2011, Nicholson said that he personally still used marijuana, before making the case for ending the prohibition on pot as well as other drugs.

    "I don't tend to say this publicly, but we can see it's a curative thing. The narcotics industry is also enormous. It funds terrorism and - this is a huge problem in America - fuels the foreign gangs," he said. "More than 85 percent of men incarcerated in America are on drug-related offences. It costs $40,000 a year for every prisoner. If they were really serious about the economy there would be a sensible discussion about legalization."
  • 18 Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (R)
    AP
  • In a 2013 American Conservative op-ed chock full of moderate Republican views, Huntsman snuck in a call to "applaud states that lead on reforming drug policy."

    While Obama and his administration have responded to state marijuana reforms by saying they must enforce federal laws against marijuana, the president has the power to reschedule the drug, which would allow federal authorities to shift resources away from a prohibitive approach.
  • 19 Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R)
    AP
  • Palin spoke out on marijuana in 2010, saying she didn't support legalizing it but also calling it a "minimal problem" for the nation.

    "However, I think we need to prioritize our law enforcement efforts," Palin said. "If somebody's gonna smoke a joint in their house and not do anybody any harm, then perhaps there are other things our cops should be looking at to engage in and try to clean up some of the other problems we have in society." While Obama has spoken repeatedly about not being interested in prosecuting small-time marijuana users, he hasn't done anything to prevent them from being busted by law enforcement in states where the drug is still illegal.
  • 20 Comedian Jimmy Kimmel
    Getty Images
  • Kimmel notably took a shot at Obama while serving as host of the 2012 White House Correspondents Dinner, questioning a continued marijuana crackdown under the president's administration. He then went on to say that the issue of its continued illegality was a serious political concern for many Americans.

    (Check out the video above.)
  • 21 Former President Jimmy Carter
    Getty Images
  • Carter hasn't minced words in expressing his opposition to harsh marijuana and drug prohibition policies.

    In 2012, the former president said he was fine with state legalization efforts, though he himself doesn't necessary support legalizing the drug.

    “As president 35 years ago I called for decriminalizing -- but not legalizing -- the possession of marijuana,” Carter said. “Since then, U.S. drug policies have been very horrible to our own country because of an explosion in prison populations.”
  • 22 Former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli
    AP
  • A staunch conservative who failed in a run for the U.S. Senate last year, Cuccinelli suggested in 2013 that he was "evolving" on marijuana legalization, and that he supported the rights of states to determine their own pot laws.

    "I don't have a problem with states experimenting with this sort of thing I think that's the role of states," Cuccinelli said, according to Ryan Nobles of WWBT.
  • 23 Columnist Dan Savage
    AP
  • Savage slammed Obama for perpetuating the war on drugs while on HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher" in 2009.

    “The proof will be in the policy. The war on drugs has gotten a really bad rap, when you ask people if they support the war on drugs they say no ... [Obama's] budget once again has the same old drug warrior policy ... I reject the assumption that everybody who is using drugs needs treatment or is an addict and needs to get arrested ... Not all drug use is abuse.”

    He's kept up the fight for drug policy reform since.

    [H/T Marijuana Majority]
  • 24 MSNBC's Al Sharpton
    Getty Images
  • Sharpton has repeatedly spoken out in favor of reforming drug laws. In 2011, he suggested that the nation had wasted trillions of dollars in an ill-fated effort that had weighed particularly heavily on the African American community.

    “We've been fighting the war on drugs since the '60s. And guess what? Trillions of dollars later, we are losing," Sharpton said during a segment on MSNBC. "When you look at the disparities in sentencing drug offenders, hasn't this kind of injustice undermined the legitimacy of our criminal justice system?”

    [H/T Marijuana Majority]
  • 25 Former Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.)
    AP
  • Tancredo came out aggressively in favor of reforming marijuana laws in 2010, telling the Colorado Independent that the correct path forward was "Legalize it. Regulate it. Tax it."

    Tancredo continued, “The arguments against marijuana today are the same as the arguments against liquor years ago.”

    Years later, the former congressman agreed to smoke pot on camera with a documentary filmmaker, a deal that he later backed out of.

CONVERSATIONS