After a watchdog blog repeatedly linked him and other local officials to corruption and fraud, the Sheriff of Terrebonne 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 officer, Wayne Anderson, works for the police department of Houma, the county seat of Terrebone Parish — and according to New Orleans’ WWL-TV, formerly worked as a Terrebone Sheriff’s deputy.
Anderson was placed on paid leave about an hour and a half after the raid on his house, Jerri Smitko, one of his attorneys, told The Intercept. She said that he has not yet been officially notified about why.
Smitko said Anderson denies that he is the author of ExposeDat.
But free speech advocates say the blogger — whoever he or she is — is protected by the First Amendment.
“The law is very clear that somebody in their private capacity, on private time, on their own equipment, has a First Amendment right to post about things of public concern,” Marjorie Esman, director of the ACLU of Louisiana, told The Intercept.
Larpenter told WWL: “If you’re gonna lie about me and make it under a fictitious name, I’m gonna come after you.”
Esman said the Sheriff and his deputies were forgetting something. “The laws that they’re sworn to uphold include the right to criticize and protest. Somehow there’s a piece in the training that leads to them missing that.”
ExposeDAT calls itself a “watchdog group,” posting articles that use public records to identify institutional corruption in the Parish. Since it launched in late June, it has accused various public officials and business owners of nepotism, tax evasion, polluting and misuse of government funds.
It promises to “introduce articles that explore the relationship between certain Public Officials and the flow of money in South Louisiana.”
The Sheriff’s office, in order to obtain the warrants, said the blog had criminally defamed the Parish’s new insurance agent, Tony Alford, WWL reported.
In a post titled “You Scratch Mine and I’ll Scratch Yours,” the blog uses public records to call attention to the fact that Sheriff Larpenter gave Alford a parish contract despite that fact that his wife manages Alford’s office.
“When decent, law abiding citizens try to speak out on matters of public importance, they’re treated like criminals,” Smitko said. “If this is what happens to a police officer with 12 year of impeccable service what the hell kind of justice do criminals get?”
The Sheriff’s office, the police department and the district attorney’s office did not return requests for comment.
This isn’t the first time that Louisiana law enforcement officers have challenged those who criticize them. In 2012, Bobby Simmons, a former police officer, was arrested and jailed on a charge of criminal defamation for a letter he wrote to a newspaper regarding another police officer. The charge was later dropped, and Simmons filed a civil suit alleging that his civil rights were violated.