from the bad-laws-used-most-efficiently-by-bad-people dept
A Louisiana sheriff has just inserted himself into a mess of First and Fourth Amendment violations by using his power to go after an anonymous blogger who claimed he was corrupt. Naomi LaChance of The Intercept has more details.
After a watchdog blog repeatedly linked him and other local officials to corruption and fraud, the Sheriff of Terrebone Parish in Louisiana on Tuesday sent six deputies to raid a police officer’s home to seize computers and other electronic devices.
Sheriff Jerry Larpenter’s deputies submitted affidavits alleging criminal defamation against the anonymous author of the ExposeDAT blog, and obtained search warrants to seize evidence in the officer’s house and from Facebook.
The target of this raid -- supposedly the blog's author (although he denies being behind it) -- is another law enforcement officer. Wayne Anderson works for the Houma Police Department. Taken from his home during the raid were five cell phones and two computers -- including his children's laptop.
Sheriff Larpenter is trying to use Louisiana's criminal defamation law to prosecute Anderson. Unfortunately for the overreaching sheriff, that law isn't going to work.
The Louisiana Supreme Court ruled the criminal defamation law unconstitutional "insofar as it attempts 'to punish public expression and publication concerning public officials, public figures, and private individuals who are engaged in public affairs.’”
Larpenter is trying to get around this by claiming the "investigation" was prompted by a citizen's complaint -- that of Tony Alford, an insurance agent named in the blog's posts. The blog's author alleges impropriety related to Alford's no-bid contract to provide insurance coverage for the parish via the agency he works for, Alford, Staples, Lapeyre & Robichaux. The corruption hook here is that Sheriff Larpenter's wife also works for the same insurance agency.
So, it's not really about Tony Alford. It's about Larpenter and his wife. The blog has also made allegations about improper relationships between the department and the town's most powerful government officials, including District Attorney Joe Waitz, Jr. Unsurprisingly, this is the same DA Larpenter wants to prosecute the case.
When Larpenter was asked whether there is a conflict in him investigating an alleged crime involving himself, he replied, "If you're gonna lie about me and make it under a fictitious name, I'm gonna come after you."
He went on to say that once he finished investigating the blog, he would turn the case over to District Attorney Waitz to determine if Waitz wanted to prosecute it or “hand it off.”
Waitz, to his credit, has recognized the conflict of interest and has chosen to pass it on to another office for possible prosecution. But the charge is unlikely to stick, even with Sheriff Larpenter's maneuvering. Larpenter's comments make it clear this attempted prosecution is personal ("lie about me") and is willing to use an unconstitutional statute to justify a search/seizure of personal electronics. But even his invocation of a supposed "private" individual (the insurance agent) to obtain search warrants isn't going to be enough to salvage this blatant attempt to shut down a critic. As the parish's main insurance provider, Alford is very definitely a "private individual engaged in public affairs." Beyond that, he's a public figure in his own right.
In addition to holding public contracts, Tony Alford is also the acting President of the Terrebonne Parish Levee and Conservation District Board of Commissioners, a public position that requires him to file annual personal financial disclosures with the Louisiana Board of Ethics.
Even the process used to obtain the search warrant to seize Anderson's devices was a bit shady.
The one they used to search Anderson’s home was signed Tuesday by Judge Randall Bethancourt, who was not serving as the on-duty judge for criminal cases that day.
This suggests a bit of magistrate shopping by the Sheriff's Office. Now that the warrant has been executed and devices seized, a motion to quash is in place. But that does little for Officer Wayne Anderson. Not only has he been suspended (with pay) by the Houma Police Department while this farce plays out, but the court is holding onto his computers and phones until a hearing on the motion can take place.
The First Amendment implications of Sheriff Larpenter's raid are clear. That the search warrant -- in pursuit of bogus criminal defamation charges -- has already been carried out means Sheriff Larpenter will be facing Fourth Amendment violations claims as well in the inevitable civil rights lawsuit that will follow this debacle. Sheriff Larpenter should have had no problem fighting speech he didn't like with speech of his own -- especially considering his position as a public figure who holds a powerful office. Instead, he has chosen to abuse his position and power to silence a critic, something that's not exactly helping him look any less corrupt.