By Jacob Sullum
A few weeks ago, I noted the remarkably keen sense of smell exhibited by Pinellas County, Florida, sheriff's deputies, who claimed they could tell, standing outside the homes of people who had purchased hydroponic gardening equipment, which ones had marijuana plants inside, simply by following their noses. But the St. Peterburg Times reports that the deputies' olfactory perceptions are not always accurate:
According to a Sheriff's Office report, detectives saw [Shane] Metler's car at Simply Hydroponics [a Largo store monitored by a surveillance camera] on Dec. 18, 2010. On the evening of July 7, two detectives and a deputy knocked on Metler's door.
He said the detectives told him they had gotten complaints from his neighbors about cars coming and going, and they had detected the smell of growing marijuana coming from his home, both charges he vehemently denies.
Metler, 35, allowed them to search the house he shares with his girlfriend. They did not find any marijuana or pot plants, but did find a soil-free hydroponic system being used to grow legal plants, according to their notes.
"I have to admit, it really shook us up," Metler said. "So, for the next four hours, we were pacing around the house and just bewildered, shocked. It really was disrupting."
Metler said he consented to the search because he knew he wasn't doing anything illegal.
But, he said, the visit put him in a "lose-lose situation, where I either look guilty or give up my rights as a citizen."
Another customer of Simply Hydroponics, Jeremy Harris, was visited by a dozen or so deputies who claimed to be acting on an anonymous tip. He consented to the search, which turned up nothing illegal. He told the Times:
They looked like full SWAT. They've got the vests and assault rifles. It just seemed like an awful excessive amount of force for somebody that is maybe just growing marijuana on the property. They showed up with enough force to deal with a drug cartel....
It doesn't seem right for them to be watching a business and then harassing the customers, basically just for shopping at that business.
The paper identified 34 such "knock and talk" searches by the sheriff's office between January 1, 2010, and September 15, 2011, 12 of which "found no marijuana and no marijuana plants."
Back in the early 1990s, when the Drug Enforcement Administration was carrying out searches like these under Operation Green Merchant, I asked a spokesman how often they came up empty. He said the DEA did not keep track of that figure and professed surprise at the idea that anyone would want to know.
Lest you think that attitude is limited to law enforcement officials, note that Jeremy Harris' mother, with whom he lives, did not share his negative reaction to the search of their home:
"I don't feel they violated my rights. They asked to search and I gave them permission," Nancy Harris said.
Harris said she was "happy" detectives searched her home because it showed dedication to fighting drug use and sale, an effort she supports.
Harris also said she felt the deputies acted professionally, taking special care not to disturb her three grandchildren.
"They didn't scare the children. They didn't disturb the children. They were very polite, and apologetic afterward," she said.