Dec 27, 2022

Inaccurate report of dismissed ticket issued to cancer patient leads to threats

Posted Dec 27, 2022 9:30 PM

Hays Post

An opinion piece printed in the Wichita Eagle on Dec. 24 told the tale of a man with inoperable terminal cancer being the victim of three cold-hearted Hays Police Department officers raiding his hospital room to confiscate the cannabis he was using to find some relief from his symptoms.

That opinion piece was later printed as news in outlets across the U.S. and beyond.

But while countless news outlets painted a picture of Hays officers citing a sick man for criminal activity and forcing him to go before the Hays Municipal Court for what would not be a crime in most of the country, they did so without any attempt to secure accurate information.

Hays Police Department Chief Don Scheibler said while officers did cite an individual being treated at HaysMed on suspicion of drug possession on Dec. 16, a request to pull the ticket was made the same day. The opinion piece was not published until eight days later on Dec 24.

He said he likely saw the report during an end-of-shift summary but became aware of the details only after the opinion piece was published.

“I wasn't really aware of the incident until I saw an opinion [piece] out of a Wichita paper talking about the Hays Police Department raiding a hospital room and an individual with cancer being arrested,” Scheibler said.

After looking into the case, he described the response captured on the officers' audio recorders.

“The hospital staff had reported they discovered a patient who was vaping with an electronic device with a controlled substance in the vape machine, and they were concerned,” Scheibler said.

He said the staff was concerned about the fire risk caused by using a vaping device and the effects of its use on the staff, so they called the police department.

Two–not three as reported–HPD officers responded to the call, Scheibler said.

“The staff already had the items,” Scheibler said. “So, they collected the items from the staff.”

“They just can't take those illegal drugs and throw them in a drawer and keep them,” he said.

From there he said the officers spoke with the individual.

“We were in the room just a little over eight minutes,” Scheibler said. “I've listened to the audio recording. The officers were polite, courteous and showed the individual empathy. He expressed some frustration about the whole incident, and they were sympathetic to that.”

But they did write him a ticket for the drug violations in accordance with Hays Municipal Code.

The misdemeanor offense used in the citation would result in a fine if he was convicted in Hays Municipal Court.

However, that process was stopped shortly after the ticket was issued and long before any story had been written.

“They immediately drove back to the office, spoke to the supervisor and that day sent an email to the prosecutor recommending they dismiss the ticket,” Scheibler said. “Based on that recommendation, we pulled that ticket.”

He said the officer, in an effort to enforce the laws as written, initially made a judgment call to follow procedure to the letter, a decision that, with guidance from a more seasoned, officer, was adjusted.

“The officers weren't perfect that day,” Scheibler said. “They tried to be, and at the end of the day, they got where they needed to be. But I can't stress enough the problem is not what they did. It's how we're supposed to enforce the law in this situation.”

He said it is also important to note HaysMed staff were also operating under their policy and state law.

“I think that the hospital did everything required to them by law,” Scheibler said. “The officer did everything in accordance with Kansas state law. They didn't violate any department policy or procedure.”

“We put law enforcement officers in a very difficult position," he said. "We want to say this is a law but don't enforce it. That's gonna be a challenge for us.”

And while the goal of the original opinion piece was likely to spur a conversation about medical cannabis use in Kansas, even as regional, national and international news agencies published the story, no one spoke with a member of the police department, leading to the inaccuracies being spread.

“Accuracy wasn't a priority,” Scheibler said. “They didn't do any investigation into it. They just tried to create discussion.”

And that lack of accuracy has led to threats against HaysMed staff and HPD officers.

“I recognize an opinion editor that's his job is to create discussion in this community,” he said. “When we fail to investigate things and actually get important facts, that's when it gets tricky. The hospital did exactly what it needed to do in accordance with Kansas law. The police officers were also acting within the law and city policy and procedure. They didn't do anything wrong.”

He acknowledged a call from the opinion editor had been logged, but as it referenced only a misdemeanor crime and with the timing right before the holiday, the call had not yet been returned.

But while the inaccuracies in the media are problematic, Scheibler said the expectation that police officers are expected to equally enforce the law while at the same time being expected to make judgment calls that not everyone may agree with is also a concern.

“We continue to try and expect police officers to be perfect in an imperfect world,” he said. “We're ultimately disappointed. At the end of the day, those kids went out there and did the best they could, based on the laws of the state of Kansas and the city of Hays and tried to use their best judgment and show compassion for this individual.”

“We encourage them to use good judgment,” he said. “We've hired them, and we empower them to use good officer discretion. And we want them to do that. … They did everything in accordance with the law, that's the problem. But at the end of the day, they got where we want them to be.”

He said he supported their decisions.

“They want to enforce the law equally and hold everybody to the same standard, which I think is important,” Scheibler said. “And I admire them for that.”

“I support what they did," he said. "I support their decisions trying to follow the law of  Kansas and Hays, but also show some compassion and empathy, and they did that. They didn't feel comfortable writing that ticket, [they] didn't think it was necessary. So, they made that recommendation [to pull the ticket.]

While standing by the actions of the officers, he said he was sorry the patient was caught up in the situation.

“It's important that we have these discussions,” Scheibler said. “It's important that we have clear laws for law enforcement to enforce. And we need to do what we think is best for all of Kansas. Again, the only thing I'm sorry about that day was that man's got to deal with one of the most private things in his life. And that's no longer possible now. For that, I'm sorry.”