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Ever think about taking up gardening? When I say forget about it, you might wonder why. After all, according to Vita Sackville-West, “The man who has planted a garden feels that he has done something for the good of the world.” Sure, but the trouble isn’t well-meaning sodbusters and seed-tossers, it’s “well-meaning” drug warriors.

Cops have a hard enough time distinguishing between marijuana and hemp plants (one will get you high, the other won’t); now they’re diversifying their ignorance to include standard garden produce – something Glen Coberly found out the hard way.

While sorting through his tomato vines last week, an unmarked, dark-green helicopter buzzed overhead, followed moments later by scads of flatfoots brandishing firearms, ordering Coberly and a visiting friend to hit the dirt like dropped sacks of potatoes.

“They had their guns out,” said Coberly, quoted in the July 20 Middlesex, Va., Daily Press.

Within minutes, one officer was introducing the two to Ms. Miranda, while another inspected the contraband crop. A Homer Simpson “Doh!” could probably be heard for miles because they found no cannabis, just juicy red tomatoes. Going from sativa to salad is bad news for a drug bust.

The Daily Press headlined the snafu, “Drug agents ketchup to wrong suspects: Tomato vines, pot similar from the air.”

Sure enough, flying over Middlesex County to scope out pot plantations, one member of the helicopter crew said the tomatoes looked like marijuana because “the color was right.” The officer, according to the Daily Press, asked not to be named because he was working undercover.

Piffle.

He didn’t want to be named because he’s a chowderhead. Confusing tomatoes with dope does not look good on a resum? – and worse on the 6 o’clock news. Getting publicly tagged, “Joe Schmoe, the officer who mistook tomatoes for marijuana,” might be a career-inhibiting move (though, considering this is the government we’re talking about here, probably not).

Middlesex County Sheriff Guy Abbot apologized before leaving the scene, saying later, “[W]e’re not perfect; we make mistakes.”

Without doubt, this mistake can be blamed on bad policing. The Keystoners should have double-checked before raiding. Triple-checked. It’s not like the suspect’s going to flush the whole crop down the toilet, thus requiring (or excusing) a “dynamic entry” or no-knock-style raid. Besides, the day after the raid the same officer who explained that tomatoes look like pot from the air because of the color admitted that the hue could have been obscured by the cloudy skies.

Catch that? On an overcast day, we treat word from an airborne officer like gospel. What is this, Saturday morning cartoons?

Before police rush in like Power Rangers, I would hope they’d use better recon than some guy in a chopper with less than great visibility. Neither the AP nor Daily Press articles filed on the incident confirm any police fact-checking before going off half-cocked.

Kid Icarus spots some leafy stuff, and it’s gung-ho, Geronimo!

Worse, this was a major operation. The antidrug team that descended upon Coberly involved the National Guard, state police and a local narcotics taskforce. What if Coberly was showing his friend a pistol or rifle at the time of the raid? People who own guns do that sort of thing. Let’s say he’s just bought a new shotgun and the two are talking about duck hunting: “Hold on, let me show you my new Remington.”

He’d run inside while his friend picks a few tomatoes and then hear the “whump-whump-whump” of the chopper get closer as he stepped outside, looking up to spy the bird circling overhead.

Maybe by then the police have already converged on the house, running out back, where the chopper pilot tells them they’ll find their suspect. “Drop the gun!”

Police raids not being common occurrences during produce-picking sessions, Coberly might spin around – “What?” – a bit confused, gun still in hand.

Which do you think he’d sense first? The physical shock of the 9mm. slug penetrating his body or the audible register of the pistol? Many bullets, interestingly enough, move quicker than the speed of sound.

And, in reality, it wouldn’t even have to be a gun. In high-stress situations, police get less than keen with distinguishing weapons from whatever else. Remember Amadou Diallo, shot multiple times by New York police for brandishing a loaded wallet? In “Shakedown: How the Government Screws You From A to Z,” James Bovard recounts the case of Erdman Bascomb, killed by Seattle cops when they stormed his apartment and shot him, thinking the TV remote in his hand was a gun.

You might want to consult the props department, but for the tomato raid, a garden hoe would probably suffice just fine.

Sure the shooting would be justifiable. They always are. The guy had a gun, maybe; of course, the police had to fire. What else do you expect them to do, get shot?

A better question is to ask why they showed up in the first place.

What fewer and fewer people seem to expect from police is police work. Investigation is the science of evidence collection and proper interpretations of that evidence. A few flyovers in overcast skies looking at a plant that can only be distinguished by its color (and just think about how many other plants besides tomatoes share the same shade of green as do cannabis plants) is hardly good evidence collection, and, given the conditions, worse interpretation is inevitable.

Given that, what we should expect before police rush in – endangering their own lives and, even more importantly, the lives of citizens that are innocent until proven guilty – is a little verification. They should have verified what the chopper said, peeked over the fence, or something, for pity’s sake. Instead they stormed in, armed, to arrest a guy for growing salsa ingredients.

“We’re just trying to do our best to protect citizens,” said Abbott. Yeah? Well, how about looking before you leap, next time? That’s sure a start.

And as for the rest of us, always be wary of people looking to do “something for the good of the world,” especially drug warriors.


Related columns:

  • Lookout for Big Narc

  • Joel Miller’s entire drug-war archive

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