NEWPORT NEWS, Va. - Hemp growers were put in handcuffs in their home during a drug raid back in September 2019, and now they have filed a lawsuit against members of the Newport News Police Department.
“I wouldn’t want my worst enemy to experience or go through what I went through that night,” said Shardell Gerald.
Shardell Gerald and Lamont Burgress showed News 3 security video that captured what happened in their backyard as they said they were answering questions in handcuffs.
It was the night of September 30, 2019, when police surrounded their home.
The couple said they were interested in growing hemp when it became legal about three years ago.
“We thought this would be a great way to reclaim our farming heritage and just start small,” said Gerald, adding the idea was to grow hemp in her backyard to do research and potentially sell it for CBD production.
Gerald said she has been a social worker for the City of Newport News for the past 12 years.
She said with this being a new law, she wanted to make sure they did everything completely by the book when growing hemp.
She showed News 3 her hemp growing registration with the state, a Newport News city business license that she obtained and documents filed out by code compliance.
She gave us a copy of a letter that the Department of Agriculture sent to the police chief stating their intent to grow hemp, which is standard procedure for anyone who has registered.
According to the application from the Virginia Department of Agriculture, “VDACS will forward a record of each Industrial Hemp Grower Registration issued by the Commissioner to the chief law enforcement officer of the locality in which the registered grower will grow industrial hemp. VDACS will notify the Superintendent of State Police of the locations of all industrial hemp production fields.”
Local police and state police are legally allowed to come to see and test the plants along with the VDACS.
The law states if the test shows THC of more than .3 percent, a person is required to destroy the plants and authorities can be notified.
Gerald said they filled out all the necessary paperwork and completed requirements to grow hemp in the backyard.
“I was good to go as far as I was concerned, and we planted in June 2019,” said Gerald.
She said the state came out and tested her plants successfully and she also paid a lab to get her plants tested as well.
Four months after they started growing the plants, there was a knock at her door.
“I just got home from work,” said Gerald. “I get to the front door and I opened it, and there are like five or six officers aiming firearms at us, screaming at us to get our hands up.”
She said they were terrified and confused about what was happening.
She said they were both handcuffed and brought out front of their home and added that there were police vans and officers surrounding their property.
She said officers told her they had a search warrant for marijuana and she said, “I immediately said, 'This is not marijuana. I am registered to grow industrial hemp,' but I was told to be quiet.”
“We told them from the very beginning, ‘Hey, this isn’t what they thought it was,’ but our cries went unheard,” said Burgress.
Gerald said she told them she was a city employee and that she had completed all the proper registration.
Burgress said he repeatedly asked for them to take her out of handcuffs. Gerald showed us home security video that captured what happened in the backyard while they were being detained.
You can hear officers talking about the plants in the video, and they appear to be searching information on their phones.
You can hear one officer say, "That’s marijuana; that’s not hemp."
Another said, "Hemp is tall and skinny. Those don’t look tall and skinny."
Gerald said she was taken out of handcuffs and allowed to come into the backyard and explain. You can hear her talking about the laws and the registration process.
After the officers left, the couple pulled up their backyard home security system to watch what happened.
“We looked at the video and hear all the commentary with the officers basically not wanting to believe the information that we provided,” said Gerald.
She was particularly upset, claiming that when one officer left he allegedly told her, "We may be back."
“'We may be back?' What? That, to me, was a threat. It sounded like a threat. I took it as a threat,” said Gerald.
She said the couple was baffled, traumatized and embarrassed in front of their neighbors.
A few days later, Gerald showed News 3 the Freedom of Information Act request she sent to the Newport News Police Department requesting information about the raid, but she was told the case was under investigation and that she was not allowed to have the information.
Gerald said she was left to wonder if the police had information that she was not aware of. She said she currently doesn't understand for what or why she would be under investigation. She wanted answers but said she received no information about what was going on.
She said the lack of information or explanation caused problems in her relationship with Burgress. The couple wondered if the other person was keeping something from them.
They said there was no apology and no explanation ever given to them about what happened.
Their attorney, James Ellenson, filed a lawsuit against the police chief and two other officers.
The city would not comment, citing pending litigation, but directed us to several court documents they’ve filed in an effort to dismiss the case.
The documents state the lawsuit fails to identify how the couple’s rights were violated, that they were lawfully detained and that there was no gross negligence.
They also cite zoning issues with how they were growing the plants.
The documents state that the police chief was under no legal obligation to share the information in the letter sent from the state regarding the couple's hemp registration. The documents also state that the chief was not involved in the search warrant executed at the couple's home.
One document states that the police chief, “is not alleged to have knowledge of the warrant, to have knowledge of the search, to have participated in the search, to have authorized the search nor to have any direct interaction with the plaintiffs.”
“For an entire year, I thought I was under investigation and your entire career and life is in jeopardy for something you did according to the book,” said Gerald.
Gerald said she would have gladly had police to her home to look and test the plants, as they are legally allowed, but she said the way the couple was treated was not proper or justified.
“Being treated less than or not equal to has gone on for far too long,” said Burgress.
“I’ve never had that experience before, and I never want to have that experience again,” said Gerald.
She said she wants to use this as a time to educate the public and law enforcement about the laws regarding hemp.
The litigation for this is currently underway in federal court.