Back in April, humble Peoria
, Illinois, made national news
when its mayor and police department combined forces to shut down a parody Twitter account. The account, named after Mayor Jim Ardis, sent out a few days worth of sex-and-drugs tweets, something that very obviously would not
have come from a mayor's actual Twitter account (exception: Rob Ford).
This very public display of stupidity may cost the City of Peoria, along with the many other defendants named in the lawsuit filed on behalf of the Twitter account owner
(Jon Daniel) by the ACLU. Obviously, the First Amendment was all but forgotten in the mayor's quest to make this account -- one that was only seen by Mayor Jim Ardis and a handful of others -- disappear.
As is to be expected in responses to allegations, almost everything damning is denied. The only allegations the city's lawyers affirm are those that can't be refuted. Freedom of Information requests by Matt Buedel of the Peoria Journal Star brought the warrant application
and email conversations between the police department and Mayor Ardis
into the public eye. As a result, the city's plausible deniability options are extremely limited. But that hasn't stopped the city from making some very questionable denials. (via Ars Technica
Defendants admit that from March 9 through March 19, 2014, Plaintiff tweeted from a twitter account, @peoriamayor, which used a picture of Defendant Ardis, the mayor of Peoria, as the account’s avatar. Defendants further admit that they pursued available legal means to shut down the account and to identify and pursue legal action against its creator. Defendants deny that they embarked on a plan to violate Plaintiff’s constitutional rights. Defendants admit that, after obtaining appropriate warrants, Peoria Police Department officers searched Plaintiff’s residence and seized certain of his personal property, and imaged certain personal information as a result. Defendants deny that they arrested, detained and interrogated Plaintiff for the crime of false personation of a public official.
While there's no record that indicates the defendants "embarked on a plan" to violate Daniel's First Amendment rights, his rights were violated all the same. But the last sentence skirts the edges of plausibility. While it's true that the police never issued an arrest warrant for the charge of false personation, it did use that charge to obtain a search warrant of Jon Daniel's home. Daniel was picked up by the police and questioned about his involvement with the Twitter account, but he was never truly arrested. Instead, he was detained -- the sort of thing that can turn indefinite while simultaneously freeing the police from having to file any possibly damning paperwork. So, the first part ("arrest") didn't happen. But the last two ("detained," "interrogated") did.
The claim that the city used "legal means" to pursue the Twitter user is also dodgy. While all the appropriate paperwork was indeed legal, the charge under which they were acquired was bogus, as became completely apparent when the State's Attorney's office refused to prosecute.
While still in full denial mode, the city also takes issue with certain characterizations made by the plaintiff.
28. On March 20, 2014, Ardis and the City, in a letter to Twitter written by the Interim Corporation Counsel for the City, threatened to file a federal lawsuit seeking an injunction against Twitter to terminate the Twitter account. Twitter suspended the Twitter account that same day.
Defendants admit the allegations contained in paragraph 28, except Defendants deny the characterization of the letter as “threatening.”
A letter that informs a party that efforts will escalate if cooperation isn't forthcoming is, by definition, a "threatening" letter. There's no way around it. The only way the city counsel's letter wouldn't have been threatening is if it hadn't been written at all. The defendants may not like the characterization (which, it should be noted, is a characterization the plaintiff never makes in the allegations), but that's an inarguable point. Friendly letters don't contain warnings about potential legal actions.
Further on, the city's lawyers attempt to deny the plaintiff felt the way he claims to have felt.
At the police station, Mr. Daniel was told he had to take everything out of his pockets before entering an interrogation room. Mr. Daniel emptied the contents of his pockets, which included his cellular telephone, and placed the items on a chair in the station. He was then taken into an interrogation room. Mr. Daniel reasonably believed he was not free to leave the interrogation room or the police station.
Defendants admit the allegations contained in paragraph 37, except Defendants deny Plaintiff’s characterization of the interview room as an interrogation room, and further deny that Plaintiff reasonably believed he was not free to leave when he was at the police station.
I'm not sure how a defendant can claim a plaintiff is wrong about their beliefs. We're not talking about creation vs. evolution or round earth vs. flat earth but whether Daniel felt he could just get up and walk out of the interrogation/interview room. Most people -- many of them "reasonable" -- feel that being detained by police officers only ends when the officers say it ends. They may be able to force the issue by asking (repeatedly) "Am I free to go?" but it's a nearly universal feeling that one does not simply leave an interview room -- especially when a police officer or two are standing in it.
Not only is it a terrible claim to make in general, but it's an awful thing to say in a court document. This is the City of Peoria telling the judge that it knows how Daniel felt when he was detained and he didn't feel the way he says he felt in his allegations. That's a pretty audacious statement even if it is the sort of thing that routinely graces defendants' response filings.
And, finally, the city asks everyone to trust that it hasn't dug through the contents of the numerous electronic devices that were seized.
Defendants deny that Defendant Hughes searched Plaintiff’s electronic devices. Defendants admit that Defendant Feehan imaged Plaintiff’s cell phone, and that other electronic devices which may have belonged to Plaintiff may also have been imaged for subsequent review by detectives, but state affirmatively that the State’s Attorney’s Office indicated it would not be pursuing charges against Plaintiff before any such data was reviewed and that, as a result, it was determined that the data would not be reviewed.
First off, we're expected to believe no searching occurred (or will occur) despite the fact that the electronics were imaged by the Peoria police. At the very latest, the police secured warrants to search the electronics by April 17th. It wasn't until April 23rd that it was announced that the State Attorney was dropping the charges. That's nearly an entire week. (Daniel's phone -- seized during his "interview" with the Peoria PD -- wasn't returned until May 2nd
, and only after he non-threateningly threatened legal action.) The investigation was still open during the intervening six days and the police had secured warrants, so it seems highly unlikely no one took at look at the data obtained. And unless someone specifies otherwise during the course of this lawsuit, the police still have the imaged content.
The denials are followed by a three-page list of affirmative defenses that states the rest of the defendants are either entitled to qualified immunity or not directly liable for these actions. The most ridiculous claim here is that shutting down a parody Twitter account (one that was marked as a parody before
most of the legal action took place) wasn't a violation of Daniel's First Amendment rights.
With regard to Plaintiff’s First Amendment claim, Defendants have qualified immunity from liability for the damages claimed by Plaintiff because Defendants did not violate any clearly established constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.
So, the city's lawyers feel Jon Daniel "reasonably" should have known he could just walk out of a police interview room at any time, but that shutting down a Twitter account and searching a house for electronics related to it wasn't the sort of thing that any "reasonable person" might find to be a violation of their First Amendment rights.
I realize a lot of this is just normal defensive legalese, but it doesn't make some of these assertions any less ridiculous, especially considering the events leading to this litigation -- namely, a mayor's offense at a clearly parodic Twitter account culminating in the seizure of every electronic device in Daniel's house. The fact that internal emails show that the police knew they had no solid legal footing
to pursue this case is going to hurt the city's claims that everything about this debacle was lawful and reasonable.