The city of Buffalo is poised to pay more than a quarter-million dollars to a family whose Parkside home was raided by a police SWAT team hunting for crack cocaine.
Officers armed with guns and a no-knock search warrant found no drugs at the home of Maisha Drayton, then a senior director of staff development at the Evergreen Association, a nonprofit health care organization. Neither she nor her two children nor her husband, Trevor, who wasn’t home when police broke through the door shortly after 6:30 a.m. on Dec. 11, 2014, had any criminal history.
The city law department last week recommended that the Common Council settle the Draytons’ lawsuit against police for $255,000.
Detectives had obtained a search warrant for the Crescent Avenue home based on the word of an informant facing unspecified criminal charges. The informant told City Court Judge Amy Martoche, who signed the warrant, that she was hoping to “work off some of the charges” when she told police that a man named George lived at the house and had crack stashed inside.
That didn’t prove true.
Hers was a law-abiding family, and that should have been obvious, Maisha Drayton testified under questioning by her attorney John B. Licata during a hearing equivalent to a deposition.
“If anyone had been in front of our house for two days, they would have seen a family going to dance — our children dance — going to work,” she said. “We, on a dime, we do the same thing … every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. Our schedule is the same.”
Officers during depositions said they watched the house at least twice before serving the warrant but didn’t see Tariq, then 10, or his brother Xavier, then 16, go to school each morning, nor did they see Maisha Drayton or her husband, who worked as a graphic designer at the Buffalo News, go to work each day and come home each night.
They also didn’t see George, the suspected crack dealer, but that wasn’t cause for concern, police testified during proceedings in the lawsuit. They believed the house was used to stash drugs, not as a point of sale, and so the lack of visible drug activity wasn’t considered unusual for a suspected drug dealer.
The Draytons owned the home where they’d lived for seven years, and police knew it. They also knew that utilities were in Maisha Drayton’s name. That, too, didn’t cause police to question whether the informant had told the truth about George living there.
Police didn’t check social media, nor did they Google “Drayton,” which might have revealed that Maisha Drayton had been featured in a “Forty Under Forty” story in Buffalo Business First and was on the Buffalo Public Schools Sexual Health Committee, the Learning Choices Network and Educational Advisory Committee for the Burchfield Penney Art Gallery and was a volunteer at the Verve Dance Studio and Young Miss Buffalo Pageant Scholarship and Enrichment program. They didn’t know children lived in the house, nor were they aware of Egypt, the Draytons’ English mastiff dog that weighed more than 100 pounds.
Aside from the word of an informant hoping to escape criminal charges by leading police to a dealer, the only thing police had to go on was a car without a rear license plate that was sometimes parked in the driveway. Police never checked DMV records to determine whether the car belonged to anyone in the Drayton family.
It’s not clear from transcripts of officers’ testimony why the car raised suspicions.
“To me, it’s suspicious if there’s a car that’s sometimes in the driveway with no plate and sometimes it’s not, yes,” Detective Jason Mayhook testified under questioning by Licata. “To me, that’s suspicious activity.”
“Of what?” Licata asked.
“I don’t know,” Mayhook answered.
The lack of drug activity or any sign of George while police watched the house didn’t help the Draytons.
“You stated there was no activity and that supports the conclusion that this is a crack stash house, correct?” Licata asked.
“The lack of activity at a stash house is indicative of it being a stash house as opposed to a trap house, where they actually sell the crack cocaine,” Mayhook answered.
Questioning grew heated when Mayhook testified that a car without a license plate and an informant’s word was the only sign of crime.
“There’s nothing else?” Licata asked. “That was enough? That’s enough for you to go into a house with 18 SWAT members?”
“Sir, is there a reason you’re yelling at me?” Mayhook responded.
“It’s incredulous — I’m incredulous,” Licata said. “And I’m not yelling.”
Police should have considered giving the informant a polygraph test before raiding the house, George Kirkham, a criminologist and former police officer, opined in a report for the plaintiff.
“Metaphorically speaking, their entire investigation of this matter was conducted with blinders on, leading the involved detectives to ignore readily obtainable evidence that contradicted the information provided by the confidential informant,” Kirkham wrote.
In seeking a search warrant, Detective Earl Perrin told Judge Martoche that he knew about George and the house before the informant told police that the Drayton home contained cocaine. He asked that the warrant be no-knock because people inside the house had guns. Kirkham wrote that Mayhook wasn’t candid when he told the judge, without corroborating the informant’s information, that the house was used to stash crack sold elsewhere.
“This statement among other representations made to the court at the in-camera hearing for the search warrant constitutes material misrepresentations of the facts that led to a finding of probable cause [to search the house],” Kirkham wrote.
Officers involved in the raid admitted no mistakes during depositions.
“It wouldn’t be the first time,” Capt. Craig Leone testified when Licata asked whether he thought crack had been removed from the house before police swooped in.
Due to the raid, Maisha Drayton, who was in underwear when police rousted her from bed, suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome and has experienced panic attacks and vertigo as well as migraine headaches, her lawyers say. Xavier suffered sprained wrists from being handcuffed, injuries to his arms and shoulders and has also experienced emotional injuries, according to the lawsuit. Tariq, who visited a therapist, suffered emotional injuries and has had nightmares, according to the family’s attorneys.
At one point, Maisha Drayton testified, she told police that profanity wasn’t allowed in her home.
“They were laughing,” she said. “Some were cursing and just walking around our house. People were going through stuff, but the ones that weren’t tearing things apart were just standing there talking.”
Police left all the doors open when they departed, Maisha Drayton testified. Snow from boots was on the floor throughout the house. The warrant left by officers was full of misspelled words, she said, along with the name of a suspected drug dealer she and her kids had never heard before.
The last officer out of the house yelled that the door police had broken down needed to be fixed, she recalled.
“And that was the last thing said to me,” Maisha Drayton testified. “So the three of us just sat on the couch. We were just stunned.”
“I will remain forever inspired by Maisha’s determined pursuit of justice for her family since 2014,” said Cassidy Martin, an attorney with the firm Dolce Panepinto, which represented the Draytons. “The successful resolution of this case means a lot to the Drayton family, but I also hope this result means this never again happens to any Buffalo family.”
Michael DeGeorge, spokesperson for Mayor Byron Brown and the police department, did not respond to a request for comment. The settlement is expected to be approved by the Common Council’s Claims Committee on Wednesday and by the whole Council next week.