Judge Who Signed 'Criminal Defamation' Warrant For Sheriff's Raid Of Blogger's House Says Warrant Perfectly Fine
from the I-only-sign-the-best-warrants! dept
Nothing's going to stop Louisiana sheriff Jerry Larpenter from defending his
good name. If you "print lies" about the sheriff, he'll "come after you." He'll have to use a criminal complaint filed by someone else (insurance agent Tony Alford) and an unconstitutional law to do it... but he's still coming after you.
The "you" in this case is a local police officer who allegedly runs a blog that allegedly made defamatory comments with claims of corruption involving the sheriff, his wife, and the insurance agency she works for.
Defamation isn't normally a criminal offense. Louisiana, for some reason, still has a criminal defamation statute on the books, but it only applies to non-public figures, which the sheriff -- and the parish's insurance agent, Tony Alford -- are not. Alford, who filed the complaint, not only holds two government positions but his agency also secured a no-bid contract to provide insurance services to the parish.
Never mind all that, though. Sheriff Larpenter found an off-duty judge to sign a search warrant and raided Officer Wayne Anderson's home, seeking evidence that he was the author of the posts. Anderson denies having anything to do with the blog posts, not that it matters. Larpenter's deputies have already made off with five electronic devices, including a laptop belonging to the officer's kids.
It would seem that after the initial raid and seizure, cooler judicial heads might prevail. No luck here. Abusing power to oppress speech is something embraced by at least two-thirds of the governmental checks-and-balances system. The judge (Randall Bethancourt) presiding over the case is none other than the judge Larpenter sought to sign his questionable search warrant -- a judge who wasn't on duty for criminal cases when the sheriff pushed his affidavit through.
A Terrebonne Parish judge on Friday stood by his decision to authorize the sheriff's office to seize a Houma police officer's computers earlier this week under the theory they were used to post a blog that may have defamed the sheriff.
I'm sure the judge was in no hurry to invalidate a warrant he signed. Anderson's lawyer argued there was no basis for it because the statute used to obtain it is unconstitutional as applied to the allegedly-defamatory blog posts. Judge Bethancourt, however, feels none of this is really a big deal.
Bethancourt said [the sheriff] had to stay within the "four corners" of the warrant and affidavit and said he couldn't tell if Alford was a public official. Frustrated, Ardoin pointed out that Alford is on the Levee Board, but what's relevant is that the comments in the complaint were about public affairs and should be protected speech.
Apparently, Bethancourt will know whether or not the Constitution applies after the sheriff's office has already examined the devices. And why not, because the statute being used can be interpreted many ways, especially with Bethancourt reading it.
Bethancourt countered that Louisiana’s criminal defamation statute is "pretty broad" and said he would allow the state to "take a look-see at these computers that might have defamatory statements on them."
Gotta love that down-home spin on possible First and Fourth Amendment violations. Law enforcement will just be performing a "look-see" within the "four corners" of a likely-invalid search warrant… all with the blessing of a judge who was apparently in jeans and a T-shirt when approached by someone from the sheriff's office during his day off.
The DA's office isn't much help either, stating that the warrant is "presumed valid" until ruled otherwise and "speaks for itself." The DA did not elaborate on what the warrant said when speaking on its own behalf, but WWLTV notes District Attorney Joe Waitz, Jr. is also mentioned in the blog as being part of a parish-wide web of corruption.
At least one member of the parish government has decided to take the litigation route, as one normally does when confronted with possible defamation.
Alford owns multiple businesses with Parish President Gordon Dove, who, the parish acknowledges, engaged Alford as the parish’s new insurance agent-of-record without any public bid.
Dove told WWL-TV that he is considering suing whoever posted the website, in part because it mentions his daughter, who is married to an assistant district attorney. He also defended the hiring of Alford because his insurance agency is local and would replace an out-of-parish consulting firm.
This thicket of incestuous business/government intermingling, along with people marrying into the family business (and sometimes the "business" is government) isn't exactly going to persuade outsiders that the blog's allegations of government corruption are likely to be false. From the look of things, it will be almost impossible to find anyone without a conflict of interest to investigate, prosecute, or adjudicate this case.
Meanwhile, Officer Anderson has been suspended indefinitely by the Houma Police Department and his electronics remain in control of the clerk of courts while Bethancourt's assertion of warrant validity is taken up the judicial ladder by his lawyers. And Sheriff Larpenter continues to look like someone who's willing to interpret the laws he's paid to enforce as broadly as needed to silence criticism of him and his office.