Woman claims ‘drugs’ were tea, sues

Published 12:07 am Wednesday, November 4, 2015

NATCHEZ — An Adams County woman is seeking damages from local law enforcement with the claim that her well-publicized November 2014 arrest on drug charges was in fact for legal possession of herbal tea.

Cynthia Strickland of Natchez filed the lawsuit naming Sheriff Chuck Mayfield, the Adams County Sheriff’s Office, the Natchez Police Department and Natchez-Adams Metro Narcotics as defendants in federal court Oct. 27.

Strickland was arrested Oct. 31, 2014, after the agents with Metro Narcotics seized what was claimed at the time to be 80 pounds of synthetic marijuana.

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The arrest happened after a postal worker flagged a package meant for Strickland as suspicious, the lawsuit says, and law enforcement agents asked her for permission to open the packages on suspicion they were synthetic marijuana. Law enforcement agents later searched her home and recovered several other packages.

The lawsuit contends, however, that the packages were an herbal tea Strickland had received for an online business she operates. It claims she told officers to contact her son in Kuwait, who had shipped her the package, for verification, but they did not believe him when they were able to reach him.

The arrest was later publicized in a news release on the ACSO’s website and several news organizations in the state published stories about it.

The release, which alleges the packages were worth $716,000, was still available as of Tuesday evening, and includes a picture of a package with a label reading, “Organic Damiana Leaf.”

“Following the plaintiff’s release from jail and the release of false statements published in the local community and statewide, one or more of the defendants tested … the contents of the packages and determined that the alleged ‘seizure of 80 pounds of synthetic marijuana’ had been, in fact, a seizure of 80 pounds of perfectly legal herbal tea,” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit says the charges against Strickland were dropped after she retained legal counsel.

The filing also claims Strickland’s residence and several floral arrangements she had in the house for her daughter’s wedding were damaged during the search, and the tea — which the filing says is “realistically valued at $7,000” — was never returned.

Strickland is seeking — among others — damages for unreasonable search and seizure, due process violations, false arrest and imprisonment, financial harm, loss of property, intentional infliction of emotional distress and defamation.

The defamation claim rests in part on the continued publication of the news release.

“The harm the plaintiff suffered as a result of the initial publication of false statements could have been and should have been partially mitigated by the publication of retractions issued to the same media outlets approached for initial publication,” the lawsuit says.

“An admission from the defendants that the plaintiff had been falsely and mistakenly (arrested) and that all charges had been dropped would have been necessary to prevent the plaintiff from suffering additional loss of status in the community.

“The defendant’s decision not to print retractions but to instead treat the arrest as if it were valid and continue to claim credit for both the seizure of allegedly illegal synthetic marijuana as a ‘drug bust’ … has and continues to proximately harm the plaintiff.”

Attorney Scott Slover, who represents the county board of supervisors and serves as legal counsel for other county agencies as needed, declined to comment on the case.

Slover said while he will act as a liaison for county officials in the matter, an attorney representing the county’s insurance company would likely handle the case.