Police mistook hibiscus plants for marijuana, arrested Buffalo Township couple, suit claims
A Buffalo Township couple is suing the township police and the Nationwide Insurance Co. after, their lawsuit says, hibiscus plants growing in their backyard were mistaken for marijuana plants.
In a lawsuit, Edward Cramer, 69, and his wife, Audrey Cramer, 66, claim that Buffalo Township police handcuffed them both and made them sit in the back of a police car for hours last month as police ransacked their house looking for marijuana.
But rather than running a pot-growing operation, the Cramers say they grow flowering hibiscus in their backyard.
The Cramers were not charged.
They filed a civil lawsuit Thursday in Butler County Court against Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co., Nationwide agent Jonathan Yeamans, Buffalo Township and three of its police officers.
Among the allegations are use of excessive force, false arrest, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy.
“Nationwide is not in a position to discuss the matter at this time,” company spokesman David Gilligan wrote in an email.
Buffalo Township police did not immediately return a request for comment.
The trouble started when a neighbor's tree fell on the Cramer's property in September.
The lawsuit states that Yeamans came to the property on Oct. 5 to investigate the insurance claim.
But the suit claims that Yeamans surreptitiously shot photos of the flowering hibiscus growing in the Cramers' backyard and sent them to police as evidence of a marijuana grow operation.
According to the complaint, Yeamans “intentionally photographed the flowering hibiscus plants in such a manner as not to reveal that they had flowers on them so that they would appear to resemble marijuana plants.”
Based on those photos, the suit claims, Buffalo Township police Officer Jeffrey Sneddon obtained a search warrant for the Cramers' property. The suit says that Sneddon claimed to have expertise in identifying marijuana.
The suit alleges that the search warrant contained no probable cause to search the Cramers' home.
The police apparently arrived at the Cramers' home around noon Oct. 7 while Audrey Cramer was on the second floor only partially dressed.
When she answered the door, she alleges that about a dozen officers were pointing assault-style rifles at her.
According to the complaint, Sgt. Scott Hess demanded that Cramer put her hands up and told her that he had a search warrant but would not show it to her.
Then, “Hess entered the home and went upstairs. Upon returning downstairs, he demanded that (Cramer), a 66-year-old woman, be handcuffed behind her back in a state of partial undress.”
The suit claims Cramer asked if she could put on a pair of pants next to her, and was told “in no uncertain terms” that she could not.
She was placed under arrest and read her rights.
The complaint alleges that she was walked outside and made to stand — handcuffed, in her underwear and without shoes — for 10 minutes.
The suit claims that Hess refused her request to get sandals. Police walked her down the gravel driveway, barefoot, to a police car.
The complaint alleges that she was left in the “very hot” patrol car, with her hands cuffed behind her, for four-and-a-half hours.
The high temperature that day was 82, according to the Accuweather company.
When Cramer asked Hess, “What on earth is going on,” she was informed of the police's search for marijuana.
The suit says she explained that the plants were flowering hibiscus plants, but Hess, claiming expertise, insisted that they were marijuana.
A half-hour later, Edward Cramer arrived home to find his wife handcuffed in the police cruiser and officers searching his home.
The suit claims he was met with leveled guns, removed from his car, placed under arrest and put in the police car with his wife for more than two hours.
According to the complaint, Edward Cramer repeatedly asked to show the police that the plants were hibiscus and noted the flowers clearly in bloom.
“Why couldn't the police see what it was?” Al Lindsay, the Cramers' attorney, said in a phone interview. “Being arrested, for people like this who have no history with crime and no experience with law enforcement, this is an incredibly traumatic experience.”
The suit says police found no marijuana in the home or outdoors and released the Cramers from the police car.
According to the lawsuit, Hess admitted that he didn't think the plants were marijuana, but confiscated them nonetheless and labeled them “tall, green, leafy, suspected marijuana plants.”
The Cramers continue to receive medical care, according to Lindsay, and Edward Cramer has seen a trauma therapist.
On Oct. 26, Nationwide sent the Cramers a policy notification letter claiming to have found marijuana growth on the property.
The letter stated that if they failed to remove the marijuana plants, Nationwide would cancel their insurance policy.
The Cramers are seeking “monetary and compensatory damages,” attorneys' fees plus court costs. They are seeking a jury trial.