In a unanimous decision the Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeals quashed a search warrant served by the Terrebonne Sheriff’s Department on the home of a Houma police officer who was suspected of publishing a blog critical of the business dealings of the sheriff, the district attorney, and the parish president.
“We are elated that the 1st Circuit has done justice in this matter,” said one of those attorneys, Jerri Smitko. “And we are especially thankful that they issued a ruling so quickly considering they have been severely impacted by the flood. I think that speaks to the seriousness and the importance of the issue that was presented to them.”
Louisiana deputies served a search warrant last week on the home of a local police officer named Wayne Anderson in an attempt to identify the person behind ExposeDat, an anonymously published government watchdog blog that has been reporting on the ethically questionable business transactions of parish public officials since mid-June.
Anderson, of the Houma Police Department, claims he is not the person behind the blog and that he has never made a post to the website. His lawyers say that even if Anderson was behind the blog, his speech would be protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution.
Houma is in Terrebonne Parish, whose sheriff, Jerry Larpenter, has been criticized numerous times on the blog. He said he opened the investigation after receiving a citizen complaint from Tony Alfred, who has also been mentioned in several blog posts.
Alfred is the president of the local Levee Board and employs Larpenter’s wife as an office manager.
Alfred, also an insurance broker, was recently awarded a no-bid contract to exclusively provide parish employees health and disability insurance.
The contract will earn him commissions on more than $700,000 in premiums each year. The new contract and Alfred’s relationship with Parish President Gordon Dove were called into question by the blog because Alfred is a partner in several businesses with Dove.
But Alfred’s public status and public business dealings was not enough to make the sheriff take a long look at this case before initiating an investigation into Alfred’s complaint which alleged criminal violations of the Louisiana’s defamation law LA RS 14:47.
The law was found to be unconstitutional in 1964 by the United States Supreme Court as it applies to public officials but that didn’t stop a judge from signing a warrant used to enter Anderson’s family home and seize property which included his family’s computers and cell phones.
The warrant secured by the sheriff’s office was signed by Judge Randall Bethancourt who also signed two subpoenas ordering Facebook and At&T to turn over the IP and home address of the account. The early subpoenas were what led police to Anderson’s home to serve the warrants.
Judge Bethancourt held a hearing Friday to determine the validity of the warrant he signed and despite Anderson’s attorney’s argument that the warrant should not have been issued because of the unconstitutionality of the defamation law, Bethancourt allowed the warrant to stand but ordered a 15 day stay to allow Anderson’s attorneys to appeal to a higher court.
Larpenter, who has faced a great deal of scrutiny for initiating the criminal investigation, appears to be unfazed by the criticism as he remains focused on finding the identity of the blogger.
“If you’re gonna lie about me and make it under a fictitious name, I’m gonna come after you,” Larpenter told WWL-TV.
Ethics attorney and Loyola Law Professor Dane Ciolino told WWL-TV that the information released by the ExposeDat website raises questions under the state ethics laws, which regulates the types of business transactions public officials can legally engage in while they hold office and up to two years following their leaving office.
“Those contracts should be examined. And the notion that search warrants are issuing and the house of a media commentator is being searched for the content of speech posted on a public website is absolutely extraordinary,” Ciolino said. “It’s amazing we’re having this conversation in Louisiana rather than in Iran.”
Anderson was placed on administrative leave from his position with the Houma Police Department immediately after the warrant was served. His lawyers have said they will file for federal relief for the violation of Anderson’s constitutional rights and for malicious prosecution.
Terrebonne Sheriff’s Department can be reached by phone (985) 876-2500 or fax them (985) 857-0274. The department’s attorney, William F. Dodd, can be reached at 985-876-2427
Terrebonne Parish Division E-Judge Randy Bethancourt, (985) 873-6580