Cost of 5 pot plants: Jobs, not house

Posted: April 10, 2008

Why the burglar alarm went off, Steve Haver still doesn't know.

Because it did, while Haver and his wife, Karen, were away in the Poconos on the morning of July 8, 2006, Reading police searched the couple's semidetached three-story home and found five pot plants growing under lights.

Because of that discovery, the Havers were soon caught in a swirl of legal decisions that overturned their lives, prompted questions about the enforcement of marijuana laws, and served as a lesson to homeowners with security services.

Steve Haver spent a weekend in jail on $1 million bail, wound up with a felony conviction for drug manufacturing, lost his driver's license for six months, and expects to lose his job as general manager of the performing arts center at Penn State's York campus.

The case has been on the front page of the local paper more than most murders, he said.

After being arrested and jailed on $500,000 bail, Karen Haver quickly lost her job as manager of the Sovereign Performing Arts Center in Reading.

Monday, though, the couple got some good news: Authorities wouldn't seize her house after all - just the growing equipment.

Under Pennsylvania law, property can be seized by police in connection with a felony drug arrest, and police not only seized the growing apparatus but former Berks County District Attorney Mark Baldwin filed for forfeiture of the house.

Steve Haver described it as an "1895 Romanesque revival semidetached rowhome," last appraised at $137,000.

As part of a settlement approved Monday by Berks County Judge Jeffrey K. Sprecher, prosecutors withdrew that request while the Havers, through their attorney, agreed to forfeit the seized equipment.

"It was a rather sophisticated growing operation," Assistant District Attorney Adrian Shchuka said. "... It wasn't like somebody went to Home Depot and bought some peat moss."

Besides five three-foot-high plants, police found a high-powered lighting system, a self-contained water system, a fan with a dehumidifier, and devices for measuring temperature and testing soil, Shchuka said.

"The timer came from Wal-Mart, that's how high-tech it was," Haver said, confirming he was the occasional user and grower, not his wife.

The equipment, worth only "a couple hundred dollars," was originally purchased to grow plants for their backyard garden, which was part of a recent garden tour, he said.

What got him interested in indoor growing, he said, "was an interest in gardening, not an interest in drugs. ... The true irony of this whole situation is that I really hadn't been a regular user for about 15 years."

On Feb. 29, Haver, now 47, pleaded guilty "to put an end to this thing," he said yesterday. The same day, his wife, 38, began a 30-day probationary period in a program under which charges have already been dismissed.

The consequences, however, haven't ended.

"I anticipate losing my employment, losing my health insurance, losing my educational benefits, nine credits away from getting an MBA," Steve Haver said.

Haver is currently on administrative leave, and the university is forbidden by law from commenting on personnel matters, said Barbara Dennis, spokeswoman for Penn State York.

His contract likely won't be renewed at the end of June, Haver said.

He also is rankled by Pennsylvania marijuana laws and how they are sometimes enforced.

"It's been quite an ordeal. I don't think your average citizen has any idea how destructive and draconion our justice system has become," he said.

People have been sympathetic, sending emails and postcards from across the country, sticking kind notes in the door.

A neighbor even donated to his legal defense.

"People in the community have generally been supportive and have been appalled at the direction this has taken," Haver said.

Ironically, buying marijuana from a dealer can be a misdemeanor, while growing some at home leaves a person open to felony manufacturing charges, he said.

A judge ruled over a year ago that the search was valid, he added.

"Overzealous is an understatment," the couples' attorney, Allan Sodomsky, said of much of the handling of the case.

After their arrest, the couple spent three days in jail because a magistrate, stepping in on a Saturday, set enormous bail, $1 million for him, half as much for her, he said.

The following Monday, Judge Sprecher, seeing no great threat, lifted the bail entirely and the couple were released, he said.

Also, the former prosecutor didn't have to attempt to seize the house, Sodomsky said.

"Every single district attorney in Pennsylvania is given a tremendous amount of discretion," he said.

Laws were broken, he conceded. "There should be penalties and they should be appropriate, but they weren't," he said.

Shchuka disagreed. "I don't have a problem with that charge at all," he said.

Filing for forfeiture of the house was also justified, in case investigators found evidence of drug dealing, he said.

"The house was properly frozen while the criminal case was pending, but without more evidence of drug dealing forfeiture wasn't warranted," he said.

Movement toward resolving the case picked up after the new district attorney's administration took over in January, Sodomsky said.

Unable to drive for months, or relocate until his year's probation is over, Steve Haver said he's uncertain what he'll be doing next.

Maybe he'll write a book about his case, he said.


Contact staff writer Peter Mucha at 215-854-4342 or pmucha@phillynews.com.

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