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Louisville Police Expected A Grow Operation. They Found Christmas Lights.

Jacob Ryan

Tyrone Evans was cooking New Year’s Day breakfast for his family when he spotted a police officer behind a tree in his yard, holding a shotgun.

He assumed the officers were chasing someone in his Buechel neighborhood and continued making his pancake batter from scratch. But when he looked through his glass front door, Evans could see the silhouettes of more officers on his front lawn.

He opened the door in his pajamas and saw Louisville narcotics detectives, police officers, and police dogs preparing to enter his home. Marked patrol cars lined his dead end street.

“I'm thinking, ‘What the heck, what’s going on?’ I never had any idea that they were looking for me,” Evans said.

Louisville Metro Police officers handed him a warrant, woke up his wife and son and corralled the family in the living room. They then spread out and turned over his house looking for evidence that he was cultivating marijuana plants in his shed.

What Evans didn’t know at the time: it was actually the police department’s second search of his property. LMPD officers obtained a search warrant to fly a helicopter over his house with thermal imaging equipment largely based on their suspicions about an extension cord running from his shed and an odor of marijuana outside of his home.

From January to June this year, the LMPD Air Unit used helicopters 24 times to aid them in narcotic investigations through thermal imaging, police data shows. This has amounted to 27 hours and a total cost of nearly $10,000 to fly these helicopters. Police made four arrests, according to the data.

Officers said the thermal images showed a heat signature “indicative of cultivating marijuana” at Evans’s house. When they returned a few days later, they did not find any physical evidence of a grow operation.

Evans speculates that what officers saw lighting up in his shed was far less suspicious. It was just after Christmas, and Evans had Christmas lights across the front of his house. The extension cord running down the side of the house powering the lights was plugged into the shed.

LMPD’s Air Patrol Commander, Sgt. Jon Hagedorn, said LMPD has used thermal imaging for at least a decade for various investigations, such as missing persons, chasing fugitives and narcotics.

“I'd say the positives far and away outnumber any of the negatives because it is a very unobtrusive way for us to gather evidence in instances like these narcotics investigations,” said Hagedorn.

But he acknowledged thermal cameras can only raise suspicions, not definitively find an unlawful grow operation. And though he was not involved in Evans’s search, he thought LMPD was obligated to acknowledge to his family they were wrong.

Instead, Evans still picked up a criminal charge: he handed a small baggie of weed to the dozen-plus officers that raided his home. They wrote him a citation.

Thermal Imaging Raises Questions

According to search warrants, officers walked past Evans’s home the third week of December, while chasing someone on foot through his neighborhood with police dogs.

When officers passed Evans’s home, according to warrants, they smelled marijuana — and saw a power cord running between his backyard shed and into his home. The officers deduced that Evans was running a grow operation.

The odor and power cord was enough evidence for a judge to grant LMPD officers a search warrant for a thermal imaging test. LMPD’s Air Unit flew a helicopter over Evans’s house on December 28, and used a forward looking infrared radar camera (FLIR) mounted outside the helicopter to look for a heat signature.

Dominic Lombardo, associate professor and department chair of criminal justice and pre-law at Indiana Tech University and a former Los Angeles police officer, said thermal imaging is not always reliable when looking for specific kinds of evidence.

“It's just going to tell you that there is an extraordinary amount or inordinate amount of heat coming from a house,” Lombardo said. “In no way, shape or form are they going to tell you, or give a reading that says they're growing marijuana. It just shows up like an infrared light.”

LMPD denied a request for records and video footage of the imaging from Evans’s home, saying none exist. Hagedorn of the Air Unit said that his unit only records images from the camera or footage of the flight if an officer requests it.

After the Air Unit performed the test, detectives returned to a judge and asked for a second warrant — this time, to go into Evans’s house — based on the evidence from the helicopter flight. LMPD officers said in that warrant that the imaging indicated a grow operation, although the warrant didn’t specify any other details.

Adam Scott Wandt, an attorney and associate professor of public policy at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, said that the officers’ suspicions didn’t seem off-base.

“I think that the officers made a reasonable determination that there could be a grow house based upon the evidence being that they saw power cables going from the shed to the house,” Wandt said.

Evans said he was not even using a generator or any other machinery — just the same electricity that powers his home.

Evans didn’t know about that search by helicopter, though, until months after the police came in on New Year’s Day — when a KyCIR reporter showed him the search warrant for the first time. Evans said he felt violated.

“I don't feel like I got protected at all,” said Evans. “My wife even asked him (the detective), ‘Are you coming back again, because if you can come in here now, what makes you not be able to come back whenever you decide?’”

Hagedorn said that officers should have acknowledged their mistake to Evans and his family, especially after having obtained two separate warrants and conducted a search without finding marjuana plants.

“I think it's beholden on us as the police to explain to that citizen, ‘Okay, look, here's what we thought, here's why we thought it, we were wrong,’” said Hagedorn. “Then the next words out of my mouth will be, ‘We apologize for any inconvenience I've caused you.’ How we handle ourselves and our courtesy towards the public is paramount.”

But Evans felt his privacy and personal space invaded as more than a dozen officers were in the home he’s owned and maintained himself for 25 years, scouring rooms and opening drawers. When officers showed Evans their search warrant, it mentioned looking for stolen merchandise or guns in addition to growing paraphernalia.

“I had none of that,” Evans said.

The only thing he did have was a small bag of what he called old weed in his bedroom sock drawer. The dogs didn’t pick it up. He volunteered it anyway.

Evans said it was enough to roll a single blunt, and he hoped the officers would just leave if they found what they wanted.

“Now I'm looking back, saying, ‘If I would’ve just kept my mouth shut,’” Evans said. “But when they come in here with all their guns and I'm not even being able to see what they’re doing, for them just come in to my home like that, it was just devastating.”

Evans said the detective who charged him with possession told him that the charge was “not a big deal.” He said he would “handle it” for Evans at his court appearances. Evans didn’t know exactly what that meant, but assumed he was off the hook.

At his first courthouse appearance, the judge asked to confirm that he did not want to take a plea offer. Evans said that the detective told him he was set.

“I mean, that’s what I was told from the detective,” Evans told the judge. “He told me he was going to take care of this for me.”

But the case continued. After that hearing, Evans hired a private attorney. He was required to take a marijuana education class and sentenced to pay $145 before his case would be dismissed in April.

A $700 Blunt

The case has had a lasting effect on Evans. As one of two black families living on the street for the past 25 years, Evans fears that his family is being judged.

“Since the police came, the people that I used to be very cordial with are not even stopping when they walk up and down the street,” said Evans. “The ones that used to stop and talk to me and ask me, ‘how's your day, how's the family’ and all that stuff, just, zip, zip, back and forth.”

Weeks after Evans’s case was resolved, the Louisville Metro Council was debating an ordinance that would tell police to deprioritize enforcement of possessing marijuana for personal use.

The ordinance passed in June. Marijuana is still illegal in Louisville, but the ordinance is intended to give police discretion on whether to bring charges against people with half an ounce of marijuana or less. Evans’s citation didn’t specify how much weed police took, but according to Evans, it was far less than half an ounce.

“It's trying to make sure that our police officers place possession of marijuana as the lowest priority,” said Metro Council President David James, a former LMPD narcotics detective. “They can be focused on other things in our community that need to be focused on; we have a pretty big violence and gang problem here in our city.”

Marjuana enforcement in Louisville has disproportionately affected African-Americans, according to recent studies and analysis.

African-Americans make up less than one-fourth of Louisville’s population, but a Courier Journal investigation found they accounted for two-thirds of those charged with marijuana possession.

In 2013, a study by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found Kentucky had the sixth-highest racial disparity in marijuana possession arrest rates per 100,000 people. Blacks in Kentucky were nearly six times more likely to be arrested, the report said, even though studies have not shown a significant difference in marijuana usage between blacks and whites.

“I think [the ordinance] should start changing those numbers,” said James. “I think that over a period of time, you'll see those numbers change.”

After learning about Evans’s case, James said that the finding of the power cord was “fluff.” But the officers and dogs smelled marijuana from Evans’s property that day, and so they were right to be suspicious.

“If the officer smells marijuana coming from a location, then they smell marijuana coming from the location, that's all they need,” said James.

When the case was through, Evans had invested nearly $700 for one marijuana blunt.

‘It’s really taken a toll on me’

In the wake of the case, Evans said he’s lost a lot of trust in his public officials, and police officers.

“I’ve worked in this community for 30 years to help pay their salary,” Evans said. “And then to be victimized? I feel like I’ve been victimized.”

Even though the possession of marijuana charge was ultimately dismissed, it remains on his record. He hopes he can get it expunged — an additional cost. For now, it’s made it harder to find a job. He was out of work at the time of his case, after his company closed down.

As a skilled trade worker, Evans said the charge has made employers wary of hiring him. He said he got three offer letters, but two rejections followed after a background check. The possession charge was Evans’s first offense.

“With skilled trade, you're dealing with machinery, pumps, gears and all the stuff that can cut your hands off or kill you,” he said. “They didn't want to take a chance on somebody with a possession charge.”

He finally got a new job last month.

The stress led Evans to lose 40 pounds, and he has started counseling for depression.

“It's really taken a toll on me,” said Evans.

Although his case has forever changed him, he said he has been moving on since the cops left his house that New Year’s Day. As planned, he got back to mixing up flour and sugar, fired the griddle back up and made breakfast for his family.