Louisiana Sheriff Jerry Larpenter: Bloggers Beware
August 9, 2016 (Fault Lines) – There are interesting things at the intersection of blogging and criminal law. For example, Fault Lines. Or, in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, a search warrant execution.
Apparently, the Terrebonne Parish sheriff, Jerry Larpenter, doesn’t take too kindly to criticism. Not many people do. But when you have search warrants and SWAT teams at your disposal, you can actually do something about it.
In June of this year, a blog called “Exposedat” started criticizing the goings on in Terrebonne Parish. Calling itself “Terrebonne Parrish’s Underground Watchdog Group,” the blog is not nearly as controversial as one would think after hearing the police are running around raiding houses and seizing computers.
Most of the entries are pretty simple. They link to documents which look like public records, or at least are pretty readily available to the public. There is a paragraph or so in each post commenting on various relationships between government officials and business figures. It’s not particularly sensational.
But based on the Sheriff’s reaction, it must be accurate. Because he was pretty pissed.
Tuesday, sheriff’s deputies executed a search warrant on a home in Houma, seizing computers and cell phones, alleging the blog’s author committed criminal defamation against the parish’s new insurance agent, Tony Alford.
The home belonged to Houma Police Officer Wayne Anderson. He denies having any involvement in Exposedat. Deputies took two laptop computers, one of which belonged to his children, and five cell phones.
Nothing like stealing a kid’s laptop and taking the family cell phones when you get butthurt over some documents being posted on the internet. Wayne Anderson, who just learned being a police officer only protects you if you protect the thin blue line, says he is not involved in the blog. Whether he will get a fair shake remains to be seen. The same butthurt cop who is overreacting to the blog is also in charge of investigating Anderson for “criminal defamation.”
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 is also featured on Exposedat.
What exactly is “Exposedat” doing to call out the jackbooted thugs with their search warrants? Not much. It has pointed out unseemly dealings by one of the town’s insurance agents.
One ExposeDAT blog post titled “Gordon Dove and Tony Alford’s Radioactive Waste Dumping,” briefly describes the relationship between Alford and the parish’s president, who jointly own a Montana trucking company that has been cited for dumping radioactive waste in Montana. That citation was originally reported in the Missoula, Mont., newspaper The Missoulian.
Why does the sheriff care what a local insurance agent is up to? Well, maybe Exposedat is actually exposing something. Turns out the relationships in Terrebonne Parish are pretty cozy.
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.
Looks like the sheriff was looking out for the home front, protecting his wife’s boss. And, in turn, his own wallet.
Some of the anonymous posts ask why Larpenter’s wife works for an insurance agent named Tony Alford, whose agency bills the sheriff’s office monthly. They also point out that Alford just lined up new insurance coverage for the parish government as well, without going through a public bid process and without an authorizing ordinance that the parish attorney has said is required.
Sheriff Larpenter probably should have left this one alone. Or, as Techdirt points out, fought the criticism the old-fashioned way. With more speech.
The First Amendment implications of Sheriff Larpenter’s raid are clear…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.
Larpenter chose a fairly dubious means of silencing criticism. Sounds like he is the only one in Louisiana who didn’t get the memo this law can’t be used the way he is trying to use it.
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.’”
“That statute is unconstitutional. We all know that,” said Jerri Smitko, a Houma attorney who represents police officers and was called to the house by Anderson when the sheriff’s deputies arrived. “But yet it’s being used to target a man who’s a good police officer and a decent citizen. His rights are being trampled on.
Actually, maybe Larpenter wasn’t the only one who didn’t get that memo. His hand-picked judge was happy to get in on the action.
Larpenter maintains his deputies have probable cause to conduct the investigation and that it was enough to secure the three warrants.
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.
The reason there is an on-duty judge is so someone can always sign a warrant. The reason police decide to use a different judge is so their bullshit warrant won’t get looked at too closely.
Why should you care about this? Some blogger in a town in Louisiana crossed a crazy sheriff and sparked a legal battle. So what? Attorney Smitko reminds us what is at stake when the government and a citizen face off.
“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 years of impeccable service what the hell kind of justice do criminals get?”
What the hell kind of justice indeed. That’s an easy answer. None. Wayne Anderson denied he was the blogger behind Exposedat, and maybe he isn’t. Whoever it is, though, should be proud of his or her work. It’s hard to tell when blogging about things is making a difference. Unless a sheriff’s raid team blows down your door. Then, you are on to something.