SALEM, Ohio — Legal action has been taken on behalf of a Lorain County farm family that says a raid on their property earlier this month violated their constitutional rights.
The Buckeye Institute‘s 1851 Center for Constitutional Law and the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund filed a lawsuit Dec. 17 in Lorain County Common Pleas Court against the Ohio Department of Agriculture and the Lorain County Health Department.
The suit was filed on behalf of John and Jacqueline Stowers of LaGrange, Ohio.
It’s alleged that on the morning of Dec. 1, ODA and Lorain County Health Department agents raided the Stowers’ home and in-house organic food cooperative, Manna Storehouse, and unlawfully seized their personal food supply, cell phones and computers.
The county says the Stowers need proper licenses to operate their retail store in accordance with state food safety rules.
“They brag on the Internet they don’t have anything to do with the government, but they’re selling perishable products to people, and that means they need a license,” said Scott Serazin, an assistant county prosecutor.
The Buckeye Institute argues the right to buy food directly from local farmers, distribute locally grown food to neighbors, and pool resources to purchase food in bulk are rights that do not require a license.
Chain of events
According to the court, search warrant and affidavits, county health department officials and an ODA enforcement agent said they believed the Stowerses were operating a retail food establishment without a license, which is a violation of Ohio Revised Code.
Dorothy Kloos, a registered sanitarian with Lorain County’s health department, and two other inspectors visited Manna Storehouse in November 2007 and “were told to leave the property before the inspectors could make observations of the operation.”
During that visit, Kloos left information on state licensing requirements. In December 2007, the Stowerses responded to the health department in a letter saying they didn’t need a license to operate their private cooperative.
In September 2008, the health department referred the matter to the Lorain County Prosecutor’s office and requested assistance from the department of agriculture and health department to “gather evidence regarding the Manna Storehouse operation.”
There has never been a complaint filed against Manna Storehouse or the Stowerses related to the quality or healthfulness of the food distributed through the co-op, according to the Buckeye Institute.
The Stowerses could not be reached by phone for comment. The health department referred all calls to the prosecutor’s office.
The court filing says police raided Manna Storehouse and the Stowers’ home Dec. 1, 2008.
It is alleged that “during the raid, at least one if not several police entered the home with guns drawn” and that the family’s home was also surrounded by police with guns drawn, according to the court filing.
At least eight children were in the home during the raid.
In a video posted on YouTube by the Buckeye Institute, Jacqueline Stowers described the raid as “violent, belligerent and forceful,” and described being held by armed guards for six to seven hours in the living room.
She called the event “extremely traumatic” for the family.
According to Kaleigh Frazier, spokesperson for the department of agriculture, an enforcement agent and a representative of the department’s food safety division were present for the visit “in a supportive role” and to answer any license questions that arose.
Frazier said department of agriculture agents do not carry firearms.
The Plain Dealer previously reported the search was conducted over three to four hours, that one agent carried a shotgun, and no semiautomatic weapons were present during the raid.
During the raid, officers seized computers, cell phones, and a “significant food supply,” much of which was from the Stowers’ own personal pantry, according to the court filing. The filing lists the value of the food as more than $10,000, including a year’s supply of meat for the family.
The Stowers family includes eight children, seven of whom live in the home. The family’s oldest son’s wife and three children also live there; the son is serving in the military in the Middle East.
The taking of the family’s computers also prevents the children, who are home-schooled, from completing their lessons, John Stowers said in the video.
The lawsuit says the Manna Storehouse “cannot reasonably be classified as a retail food establishment because it does not store, process, prepare, manufacture or otherwise handle food for retail sale” and that the co-op is exempt from licensing requirements.
The Stowers describe the storehouse’s activity as buying local foods from farmers; growing their own food; consuming the food they have grown or purchased; and distributing excess of that grown or purchased to members of their co-op in prearranged amounts.
Serazin said because the Stowers are selling food they purchased, they need a retail license.
Stowers also said the only exception to the section of Ohio Revised Code the Stowerses are pointing to for their independence is meant for farmers producing a product on their own property and selling it from the property.
For instance, a farmer with a flock of hens may sell a certain number of eggs per year from the farm with no need for a license. If that farmer sells the eggs to someone else, who sells them to others, then the exception is voided.
“Ohioans do not need a government permission slip to run a family farm and co-op, and should not be subjected to raids when they do not have one,” said Buckeye Institute 1851 Center of Constitutional Law Director Maurice Thompson.
Thompson also said forceful raids and searches and seizures exceed the authority granted to ODA and county health departments.