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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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