The office dropped charges against 64 of the 65 people who spent nearly three days in jail after their arrests.

Torpy at Large: Payment coming due in ‘Cartersville 70’ pot(shot) case

Andrea Lopez is a college grad who works at a bank in Cobb County. Cayd Martin is a heavy-machine operator who works in a nuclear power plant in Louisiana. Both are in their early 20s, just starting out their careers, and don’t have criminal records — or at least they didn’t until Dec. 31, 2017, when they were rounded up in an absolutely boneheaded police action in Cartersville.

Now you can Google their names and find their mugshots on the internet, where such things seem to linger forever.

Both Lopez and Martin told me about the humiliation of standing naked, spreading their legs and being told to cough as a Bartow County deputy looked on, before being placed in frigid holding cells (it got down to 18 degrees outside during their stay). Martin also said a jailer took away his blanket and jail-issued flip-flops, and then tossed him into solitary confinement in an even colder cell after he complained about the treatment.

Lopez spent 42 hours in detention; Martin spent 51.

Lopez and Martin were part of the so-called “Cartersville 70,” the round number for the tally that night as Cartersville and Bartow County did their best to make themselves seem like modern-day Barney Fifes.

At least 65 young people, mostly aged 19-23 and most of them minorities, were detained, cuffed, paddy-wagoned, stripped, frozen and harangued before being bonded out. Then their mugshots were splashed across the world by the media.

All this because cops found less than an ounce of marijuana at a birthday party that they raided. Now, nobody was actually found with pot. It was surreptitiously dropped by unknown partygoers as the officers wandered into the home without a warrant. So, in the wisdom of the head of the Bartow-Cartersville Drug Task Force, everyone was charged with possession of that weed.

The effort showed how some departments can act gung-ho in Mickey Mouse cases as remnants of the war on drugs lurches on … and on … and on, even as polls show a majority of Georgia residents support pot’s legalization.

Cayd Martin, who now works at a nuclear power plant, was wrongfully arrested at a party in Cartersville. “I type my name in (to Google) and my mugshot pops up,” he said.

“They were treating it like they had a big drug bust, like they were going to come away with medals,” said Martin.

A couple of weeks later, the district attorney — knowing she had a real stinker — scraped this case from her shoe and dismissed the charges against 64 defendants.

Later, a Superior Court judge threw out the evidence in the remaining case: Cops allegedly saw a partygoer toss his stash. “It was incumbent upon the officers when they smelled the marijuana at the door to then go get a warrant,” the judge wrote. “I think they had probable cause to go get a warrant then, but I don’t think that they had probable cause to go through the home and detain everyone and hold everyone.”

You think? This is Constitution 101.

Almost 70 people went to jail for what is pictured. Two of the guns were turned over to police by arrestees. The other gun was the homeowner’s.
Photo: Bartow-Cartersville Drug Task Force

And now, as you might imagine, there’s a federal lawsuit in this matter claiming the actions of about two dozen Cartersville cops and Bartow deputies were “willful, deliberate, malicious, and involved reckless or callous indifference to plaintiffs’ rights and should be punished and deterred by an award of punitive or enhanced damages.”

This is legalese meaning they acted irresponsibly and sometimes hostilely and should be made an example of — and pay out some cash. Lawyers for the 65 requested $60,000 each and $85,000 in attorneys’ fees. In a letter to the city and county, they ticked off a list of six- and seven-digit settlements in other wrongful arrest cases. And this case, on the face of it, seems so very wrongful.

Gerry Weber, one of the Southern Center for Human Rights attorneys handling the suit, called the arrests a “bizarre” overreach. He said it was a case in which bad police policy — Cartersville and Bartow cops testified it was common to walk into a house first and then get a warrant — can have real impact.

“You can see how a bogus arrest can upend lives,” Weber said. “We want to send a message. Our clients are saying, ‘This should not have happened to us. This cannot happen again.’”

Dozens of people were arrested on the night before New Year’s Eve 2018 at a party in Cartersville.
Photo: WSB-TV video screen shot

I spoke with Tom McCain, the former chief deputy of Johnson County in Middle Georgia who now heads the Georgia chapter of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

“We have 70 people out there with a criminal record, all over a little bit of weed, for gosh sakes,” he said. “It’s just the drug warrior mentality. This is the same county where the helicopters were flying and then they raided a man’s home over okra plants.”

That was back in 2014, when authorities showed up at a retired man’s home after mistaking okra, which has five leaves, for pot, which has seven.

I called the city’s lawyers, the Cartersville Police Department and the Bartow County Sheriff’s Office and got no response by deadline.

As has been said, these cases have ripple effects. At least two of those arrested were fired from jobs, a guy in the military got grilled by his superiors, and an athlete aspiring to college was kicked off his team. Both Lopez and Martin, the two mentioned up top, felt and still feel the rippling.

Andrea Lopez said she was given an old jail uniform with no underwear after being strip-searched following a bogus arrest. “It was humiliating,” she said.

“It was embarrassing how my family found out about it — on TV,” said Lopez. “It was a dark cloud over my head. Even my mom questioned my character.”

She explained the circumstances to bank bosses and they understood, she said. But for months she felt peculiar looks from customers. “I wouldn’t want someone handling my money if I was plastered all over the media,” she said.

Martin, who worked a local construction job at the time, faced an unhappy boss who made him take a drug test when he returned to work. He peed clean.

He later applied for a job at a steel mill and even had connections in the company. But ultimately he was turned down. “I strongly feel (the arrest) was the hiccup,” he said.

“When you apply for a job, you have to say, ‘Yes, I have been arrested.’ Then you tell them, ‘But it wasn’t my fault.’ And they’re like, ‘It’s never their fault,’” Martin said, adding, “It taints you right off the jump.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.