Back in April I posted, “Banana Republic in Peoria, Illinois: Police Sent after Parody Twitter Account.” Now we have an update and the news is not good.
The Guardian reports:
The police hadn’t even come for him. When four fully-armed officers of a Swat team burst into Jacob Elliott’s house in Peoria, Illinois in April they were looking for the source of a parody Twitter feed that had upset the town’s mayor by poking fun at him.
It transpired that one of Elliott’s housemates, Jon Daniel, had created the fake Twitter account, @peoriamayor, and so incensed the real-life official, Jim Ardis, with his make-believe account of drug binges and sex orgies that the police were dispatched. Elliott was just a bystander in the affair, but that didn’t stop the Swat team searching his bedroom, looking under his pillow and in a closet where they discovered a bag of marijuana and dope-smoking paraphernalia.
Elliott now faces charges of felony marijuana possession. He has also become the subject of one of the more paradoxical – if not parody – questions in American jurisprudence: can a citizen be prosecuted for dope possession when the police were raiding his home looking for a fake Twitter account?
A Peoria judge this week ruled that the police were entitled to raid the house on North University Street on 15 April under the town’s “false personation” law which makes it illegal to pass yourself off as a public official. Judge Thomas Keith found that police had probable cause to believe they would find materials relevant to the Twitter feed such as computers or flash drives used to create it.
I am not as concerned about the police finding the marijuana they weren’t looking for as I am that the mere legality question is supposed to justify a full SWAT raid with pointed guns in the home. There was no reason for this to be considered a potential firefight. The use of weapons and body armor was purely a decision to punish and intimidate an enemy.
The judge, as far as I can tell, assumes that every and all police searches can be carried out as armed raids without requiring any further justification.
Furthermore, as I pointed out originally, this use of the “false personation” law would be a joke were it not such a blatant attack on the First Amendment. The mayor, Jim Ardis was and is a public figure. A twitter account has the same right to mock him that Saturday Night Live has to mock a public figure. But Ardis would not be restrained by such considerations. He ordered the police to track down the owner of the twitter account. This Judge has now ratified the Banana Republic regime.
Contrary to the Judge, ordering this raid was a criminal move. If you or I were mocked on Twitter, we would not be able to get a gang of police toughs to break and enter the mocker’s home. Even if you really had a case you would have to pursue justice according to civilized rules of behavior, giving the mocker a takedown notice, etc. If you busted into his home with a gun you would go to jail.
But not if you’re a mayor. They matter more than us, the little people.
Is that how our country is supposed to work? Politicians get extra protection from mockery that the rest of us must do without? Isn’t that the opposite of the First Amendment?
It gets even more bizarre when you realize that the prosecutor has refused to pursue charges against the owner of the parody twitter account because he has decided one cannot commit “false personation” over the internet. You have to do it face to face. So the prosecutor says there was never any law broken and the judge says the police search was legal anyway.
The good news is that the Guardian reports that there are now fifteen parody twitter accounts in the Mayor’s name to replace the one that he terrorized.
Serves him right.