Florence Hart isn’t anybody’s definition of a drug lord.
The north Spokane woman is 72 years old, cans her own jam and searches garage sales for blue glassware. She has cataracts and bad hearing.
Most people view her as a friendly senior citizen.
But the government sees a menace. It wants to take away her home of 33 years because marijuana plants were found growing in the basement.
Hart wasn’t tending the crop - a grandson allegedly was - but that hardly matters under the state’s zero-tolerance drug laws.
If the attorney general’s office convinces a Spokane County judge that the grandmother of six knew the plants were downstairs, the $50,000 house on East Longfellow can be seized as a drug-related asset.
It then could be put on the auction block, with proceeds given to drug-enforcement agencies.
“We need to send a message,” says Assistant Attorney General Fred Caruso. “You don’t stop this kind of crime unless you take the economic motive away.”
Hart, a silver-haired divorcee with three dogs, has lived in her Lidgerwood Park home since 1962. At $60 per month, she paid off the mortgage.
Today, the roof sags, but the porch is lined with flower boxes. Inside, a sofa and easy chair are covered with Afghans she knitted. Walls bristle with knickknacks, framed photographs and painted china plates.
Hart says she is doing her best to deal with the threatened loss of her home, which represents her life savings. Since retiring as a laundry worker, she has lived on Social Security income of $430 a month.
“I guess it’s time for me to move,” she says, glancing around her cluttered living room. “I don’t know what to get rid of and what to keep.”
Then she adds, “Where am I going to live?”
The forfeiture - pursued jointly by the state and county - is unusual because authorities usually go after the assets - cars, boats, homes, bank accounts - of drug dealers and their suppliers.
Hart isn’t accused of a crime. She wasn’t arrested after the marijuana plants were uprooted, and her record is spotless.
Authorities, however, have no qualms about seizing her house.
At the very least, they say she knew about the plants and looked the other way.
The government theory is supported by the presence of a washing machine in the basement, the discovery of a bucket of dried marijuana on a shelf next to her canned jams, and the fact that she twice bailed out grandson Aaron Sears following arrests for marijuana cultivation.
“She should have known better,” a sheriff’s deputy says.
When Spokane Regional Drug Task Force agents searched the home April 13, they found 126 plants, ranging from sprouts to budding 4-foot specimens. They also found a scale, special lights and packaging materials. Most of the crop was hidden behind a makeshift curtain and a locked door.
Agents say the indoor farm had operated for more than two years and was sophisticated enough to have netted $150,000 to $200,000 over that period.
Family members insist Hart is an unwitting accomplice, blinded by love for her grandchildren.
“She didn’t know what was going on. Her basement is always full of people’s junk,” says her son, Wes Hart of Glendale, Ariz.
While Sears, 24, was arrested in connection with the marijuana-growing operation, he has not been charged.
His brother, Michael Sears, 25, has taken responsibility, attorneys say. He has pleaded guilty to federal drug charges and is awaiting sentencing.
Under civil forfeiture laws, authorities need only prove Hart was more likely than not to have known about the marijuana plants in order to win.
A hearing in Spokane County Superior Court is scheduled Oct. 16.
Hart’s attorney, John Rodgers of Spokane, hopes to convince the attorney general’s office to settle the case short of grabbing the house.
“It’s not right in this case,” he said. “It’s a new law and it’s being brought to bear against a person who wasn’t responsible for the drug war.”
Spokane County Prosecutor Jim Sweetser disagrees.
“The owner is responsible for the acts that occur in their residence,” he says, “and the law will hold them accountable.”
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