from the 'we-thought-we-would-get-away-with-it'-is-not-a-valid-defense dept
Two years ago, just as the COVID pandemic was beginning to radically transform day-to-day life for nearly everyone on the planet, the United States Postal Service decided to protect cops from passive criticism. One month after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin personified America’s omnipresent racism by kneeling on the neck of unarmed black man George Floyd until he was dead, the USPS stepped in to seize a shipment of face masks containing phrases like “Stop killing Black people” and “Defund police.”
Facemask suppliers were in short supply during the early months of the pandemic. Oakland screenprinter Movement Ink stepped up to fill the void, sending out functional masks featuring social justice-related slogans. The small business run by Oakland resident Rene Quinonez had never had any problems with the US Postal Service prior to the shipment of these masks. But the USPS suddenly decided it had a problem with his latest products and inexplicably decided to treat the First and Fourth Amendments as disposable.
The masks, ordered by activist group Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), ran the group nearly $10,000. The initial shipment of 500 masks somehow came to the attention of the US Postal Service’s investigative wing, which decided they could travel no further than the postal depot. The recipients and the sender were given no reason for the seizure. The only information they received was a notification on their tracking info that the packages had been “Seized by Law Enforcement.”
The US Postal Inspection Service never explained why it had seized these clearly not-illegal masks. The following morning, the USPS released the items — again without explanation — and refunded Movement Ink’s shipping fees. That release appeared to have been motivated solely by the bad press the USPS was racking up, and followed two days of the USPS sitting on the shipments while refusing to explain why it had flagged the products and prevented them from being received by the group that had purchased them.
This seizure may have been the move of a single dumbass employee who thought telling cops to stop killing black people was some sort of threat. More likely, it was a government agency inserting itself into a proxy discussion on police activity by deciding it should protect the powerful from criticism. And it’s likely going to cost the entire Postal Service a bit of cash. As Ryan Reilly reports for NBC News, the government is being sued for violating the Fourth Amendment by searching and seizing this shipment, as well as violating the First Amendment for trying to prevent the messages printed on the masks from being distributed.
The lawsuit, filed on Wednesday and shared first with NBC News, accuses U.S. Postal Service and U.S. Postal Inspection Service officials of violating constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment by improperly seizing the boxes without probable cause, a warrant, or even reasonable suspicion. The lawsuit also raises the possibility that officials violated the First Amendment by seizing the masks because of their political messaging.
Movement Ink owner René Quiñonez, who owns the screen-printing business in Oakland, California, that manufactured the masks, told NBC News that his small family business had been impacted by the seizure.
“For us as an organization, as a company, and as part of our community, our intent was to support the many activities that were going on across the country,” Quiñonez told NBC News.
As the lawsuit [PDF] notes, the USPS knew what was contained in the packages. And because it knew what words were contained in the boxes, its actions were highly suspect and most likely illegal.
As confirmed by the postal official Defendants’ internal notes memorializing the seizures and searches of those boxes, millions of packages shipped every year share the unexceptional characteristics of René’s and Movement Ink’s packages that Defendants relied on to justify their suspicionless, warrantless seizures and searches. And those same internal notes make clear that Defendants knew the packages coming from Movement Ink contained—in Defendants’ words—“BLM MASKS.” So Defendants appear to have violated not just the Fourth Amendment, but also the First Amendment, while committing several common law torts in the process.
This unexplained seizure — which followed three uneventful shipments of other masks containing similar slogans — negatively affected the small company’s business.
René and Movement Ink suffered severe reputational harm because of Defendants’ baseless seizures and searches of René’s and Movement Ink’s political mask shipments.Talks for future orders were terminated, and René could not even get a call back from many of his partners—including not only his new partners, but preexisting ones too.
For example, in addition to the recipients of the political mask shipments at issue in this case, who terminated talks for future orders, at least three other groups who had regularly ordered from and collaborated with René and Movement Ink ceased their partnerships and cut off all ties with René and Movement Ink.
According to the USPS, the packages were detained and searched for non-political reasons. Instead, they were searched for ridiculous reasons.
Defendants’ notes contend that the shipments were suspicious because of (1) “bulging contents,” (2) “frequently mailed parcels from the same sender/address,” (3) “parcel destination is a known drug trafficking area,” (4) “taped or glued on all seams,” and (5) “parcel mailed from a known drug source area.”
In other words, the packages looked like packages — sealed to prevent loss of merchandise and being sent from one area of the country to another. This justification is clearly specious. And even that belated justification is undercut by the USPS’s notes, which indicate inspectors had already determined the packages contained (in the USPS’s own words) “BLM masks.”
If the USPS moved forward with a search and seizure after determining the contents were masks with “political” slogans, it violated the First Amendment along with the Fourth Amendment. The Post Office’s “well maybe it was drugs” excuse is probably going to carry a bit of weight in the counterarguments because that’s just how the justice system works, but the rest of the allegations certainly make it appear the Post Office blocked this shipment because it didn’t like what was in the packages, not because it truly suspected what was in the packages was illegal.
Even if the Postal Service wins this lawsuit, it will still lose. The optics aren’t going to improve if the USPS can talk a judge into believing its vague statements about drug shipments add up to reasonable suspicion to investigate further, or actual probable cause for a seizure and search. What it will always look like — thanks in large part to the USPS’s own notes about “BLM masks” — is a politically motivated action that was supposed to keep people the government didn’t like from criticizing the government.