Appeals court sets hearing on Harrison Co. property lawsuit

Published 5:12 pm Wednesday, October 11, 2006

A federal court in New Orleans will hear arguments next month in a property owner’s appeal of the dismissal of his lawsuit against Harrison County Sheriff George H. Payne Jr.

U.S. District Judge Louis Guirola Jr. in May 2005 dismissed Marion Waltman’s civil lawsuit against Payne. Waltman had claimed the sheriff violated his rights by destroying more than 500 kenaf plants grown as deer food.

Payne said it was an honest mistake when he and other law officers destroyed what they thought were marijuana plants.

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Waltman appealed Guirola’s ruling to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has set arguments for Nov. 7.

Waltman sought $225,000 in damages from the Sept. 8, 2003, raid on land leased for the Boarhog Hunting Club. Waltman, who had planted the kenaf, claimed he was watching a television news report when he saw inmate workers chopping down plants and heard the sheriff say the plants appeared to be marijuana.

Guirola determined that Payne was acting within his official capacity and within the scope of discretionary authority. Qualified immunity shields Payne from liability because his conduct was “objectively reasonable,” the judge said.

Court records show an informant reported the crop as marijuana to state narcotics agents and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officers. The plants were scattered among other plants, a technique common among marijuana growers, authorities said.

A field test on a sample plant did not identify it as marijuana. Payne ordered the plants seized and sent samples to the state Crime Lab.

Africans grew kenaf as early as 6000 B.C., and within the last century it has been grown in India, Asia, Africa, the Near East and Latin America. U.S. farmers devoted about 12,000 acres to kenaf in recent years, mostly in Texas, Mississippi and Georgia.

Kenaf comes in two varieties: One with leaves that resemble marijuana, the other with heart-shaped leaves similar to the hibiscus plant, a kenaf cousin.

Waltman said the kenaf plant has seven leaves at the top and okra-looking leaves at the bottom. He said marijuana only has five leaves.

Kenaf stalks, which reach heights of 12 to 14 feet, have two types of fiber. The long, stringy outer fiber can be twisted into cords and ropes. The shorter inner fibers can be used to make paper, or blended with plastic to make molded or extruded products.