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Disney, sheriff sued over 2019 CBD oil arrest. ‘Why would Mickey Mouse arrest grandma?’

Disney's Magic Kingdom park. (Dreamstime/TNS)

A North Carolina great-grandmother who was arrested last year at Magic Kingdom for carrying CBD oil alleges she was falsely imprisoned and terrorized during the ordeal in a lawsuit filed Wednesday against Walt Disney Company and the Orange County Sheriff’s Office.

Hester Burkhalter, 70, said deputies assaulted and humiliated her in front of her family and other tourists in April 2019 when they detained her for carrying cannabidiol oil, made from the non-psychoactive compound in cannabis, according to the complaint filed in Orange County circuit court.

Burkhalter, who suffers from advanced arthritis, used CBD oil after her doctor recommended it for chronic pain, said Ben Crump, the civil rights attorney best known for representing the families of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and George Floyd.


“It is entirely outrageous that Disney World would discriminate against people who have medical conditions that don’t respond to common pain relievers,” Crump said at a virtual press conference Wednesday.

“It is disgraceful that the [Sheriff’s Office] would treat this cherished grandmother like a common criminal in front of her family,” Crump added. “To have her children ask, ‘Why would Mickey Mouse arrest grandma?‘”

The lawsuit is seeking up to $12 million in damages.

Disney did not respond immediately to a request for comment. OCSO said it has not been served the lawsuit, but it does not comment on possible pending litigation.

Crump said Burkhalter and her husband saved money for two years to take their adult daughter and two adopted young children on a “dream vacation” to Disney World.

The day before Burkhalter’s arrest, the family went to Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios without incident. She was carrying a 1 oz. dropper bottle of CBD oil in her purse, but security at those parks did not search her, the lawsuit said.

Disney security stopped the family outside the gates to Magic Kingdom April 15 and demanded Burkhalter empty her purse, finding the bottle.

A deputy tested the substance for THC, the component in marijuana that creates a “high,” even though the bottle had a label that said “zero THC,” according to the complaint. The lawsuit claims the first test was negative, but deputies conducted a second test, which registered a positive.

Although CBD oils derived from hemp containing less than 0.3% THC have been legal at the federal level since December 2018, it was illegal in Florida at the time of Burkhalter’s arrest, though that has since changed.

Burkhalter was arrested for possession of hashish and deputies placed the handcuffed grandmother in the backseat of an agency vehicle. Hester suffered a mild panic attack after complaining she could not breathe and began to vomit, the lawsuit said.

Deputies denied Burkhalter medical assistance but did allow her to sit in the front seat, the suit said. The complaint alleged OCSO edited “her distress and panic-induced illness” out of the video it released to the public.

OCSO denied the claim.

“The video that was released in May 2019 is all of the body worn camera video associated with this case,” the agency said in a statement.

After she was booked, Burkhalter was asked to strip naked and “bend over” for a cavity search, the lawsuit said. She was released after 15 hours, and prosecutors dropped the charge 11 days later.

Crump said neither Disney nor the Sheriff’s Office has not apologized to Burkhalter. Burkhalter was initially trespassed from Disney property after her arrest but that ban was later lifted, the attorney said.

“[They] cannot give back what they stole from Hester Burkhalter — her dignity, her sense of pride and her esteemed role as matriarch of her family,” he said.

Crump said his client suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Burkhalter said she still has nightmares about the incident.

“Every time I think about it a whole lot or talk about a whole lot, I get real nervous and sick to my stomach,” she said.


© 2020 The Orlando Sentinel