Sat, Sep. 17, 2005
BEL AIRE, Kan. - The police thought they'd found marijuana plants growing in a former mayor's back yard, where his wife sometimes entertains members of the senior citizens' group she leads.
Officers took pictures. They showed them to an assistant district attorney, who took a search warrant application to a judge, who signed it. And when police in this Wichita suburb went back to Harold and Carolyn Smith's house for a closer look, they found ...
The couple had grown the plants from seeds given to them by their son, a wildlife biologist.
Kansas is, of course, the Sunflower State - which made the error even more baffling, the Smiths' attorney said.
"That plant on our state flag is not a marijuana plant, but a sunflower," said the attorney, Dan Monnat, of Wichita.
Bel Aire Mayor Brian Withrow, an associate professor of criminal justice at Wichita State University, has hired a consultant - a university colleague, Michael Birzer - to look into the Sept. 6 search and the events that led up to it.
On Birzer's list of questions to answer, Withrow said, is the obvious: "How did we make this mistake?"
The Smiths have hired him to do the same thing, Monnat said.
"These are very community-oriented people who have been active in their community affairs for years," he said. "I think it's probably fair to say they care much less about the idea of a lawsuit than they do about assuring the citizens of Bel Aire that they have competent police officers who will protect the rights of everyone."
During the search, Monnat said, at least 10 officers went through the Smiths' house, checking drawers and closets and videotaping everything. The tape has not been returned, Monnat said.
Withrow said the plants weren't blooming at the time, but Monnat said some were - and noted that police would have had to drive past many other sunflower plants on their way to the home to search it.
Harold Smith served as mayor from 1991 to 1998, leaving office before serving all of his fourth and final term.