Terrebonne Sheriff reaches 'compromise' with blogger in 1st Amendment lawsuit over illegal search
NEW ORLEANS -- A "compromise" has been reached in the civil lawsuit against Terrebonne Parish Sheriff Jerry Larpenter over the illegal raid of a Houma couple's home aimed at unmasking a blogger critical of Larpenter and Terrebonne Parish leaders.
U.S District Court Judge Lance Africk issued an order Thursday dismissing the case, citing the compromise as the reason for the dismissal, but retained the right to re-open the case if the terms of the undisclosed settlement are not carried out in a "reasonable time."
Jennifer and Wayne Anderson sued Sheriff Larpenter after he searched their home and seized the family's computers and cell phones a year ago. Larpenter ordered one of his detectives to secure a search warrant under the guise of a criminal defamation investigation into Jennifer Anderson's blog, "ExposeDAT."
The Andersons and their attorney couldn't disclose the details of the settlement, but they declared victory.
"We’re ready to put this behind us and we're going to move on with our lives," Wayne Anderson, a Houma police officer, told WWL-TV in an interview. "I think the sheriff’s finally learned that he can’t bully people and violate people’s constitutional rights. In our case, he stepped on the wrong people’s constitutional rights because we knew our rights. Hopefully, he thinks twice the next time he gets his feelings hurt."
The Andersons' attorney, Jerry Smitko, struck a more conciliatory tone.
"Today is a victory for citizens' right to be critical of their elected officials without fear of retribution," Smitko said in a statement. "It is reassuring to see that the Sheriff has decided to take responsibility for what he did to the Anderson's, and compensate them for the harm they suffered due to his actions."
The Andersons previously settled with Terrebonne Parish President Gordon Dove for his role in the case. The Andersons were paid $50,000 from parish coffers.
Larpenter didn't respond to a request for comment or a public records request for the settlement agreement by the time of publication.
Louisiana's criminal defamation statute was declared unconstitutional by the La. Supreme Court decades ago as it pertains to elected officials and private individuals engaged in public affairs.
Larpenter said he initiated the investigation after insurance company owner Tony Alford filed a criminal complaint about "ExposeDAT." The blog questioned the close ties between Alford, Larpenter and Terrebonne Parish President Gordon Dove.
At the time of the search and seizure, Anderson's true identity was not publicly known. She created "ExposeDAT" using the pseudonym John Turner.
While the judge who issued the search warrant found probable cause for the search, Louisiana's 5th Circuit Court of Appeal found it unconstitutional.
The Andersons filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court against Larpenter, alleging the sheriff violated Jennifer's 1st Amendment right to free speech, their 4th Amendment protection from unlawful search and seizure and for malicious prosecution.
In a scathing order filed Wednesday, July 19, U.S. District Judge Lance Africk denied Larpenter's motion to throw out the case in its entirety, allowing the constitutional claims to proceed, but dismissing the malicious prosecution claim because Anderson was never formally prosecuted.
"Given the longstanding and robust constitutional protections afforded speech involving public officials (and speech involving public funds), it can be argued based on these allegations that Sheriff Larpenter acted with at least deliberate indifference to the risk that his actions would violate the Andersons’ constitutional rights," Africk wrote.
Larpenter has argued Anderson's blog targeted Tony Alford in his capacity as a businessman, not in his role as a public official on the Terrebonne Parish Levee and Conservation District Board of Commissioners. But like the state court, Africk found Alford is a public official, and therefore Anderson's speech would be protected.
"Jennifer Anderson’s speech falls squarely within the four corners of the First Amendment," Africk wrote.
The implications of the case not only reach far into the precious protections guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, but for the Andersons, the ExposeDAT investigation was life-changing, and not for the better.
The day of the search, Wayne Anderson was placed on indefinite administrative leave by the Houma Police Department. He then had medical problems that forced him off duty until last week.
The resulting scandal caused Jennifer Anderson to lose her job as well.
The order says Larpenter has argued there was no damage done to the Andersons because they got their phones and their computers back without them being searched.
But Judge Africk indicated in his July order the damages caused by sheriff's actions go beyond the alleged trampling of the Andersons' constitutional rights.
"That message—if you speak ill of the sheriff of your parish, then the sheriff will direct his law enforcement resources toward forcibly entering your home and taking your belongings under the guise of a criminal investigation—is inseparable from the injury and would certainly chill anyone... from engaging in similar constitutionally protected speech in the future," Africk wrote.
Two months after Africk's scathing ruling, the Andersons and the Sheriff reached the compromise.
Wayne Anderson also had harsh words for Judge Randy Bethancourt, the state judge who signed off on the search warrant and said the sheriff should be allowed to have a "look-see" in spite of the unconstitutionality of the state's criminal defamation law. A state appeals court later overturned Bethancourt's ruling, and Anderson said he hoped Bethancourt would review search warrants more carefully from now on.
"These proceedings should serve as a preeminent caution to any government official who even thinks about using his position to punish those who exercise their constitutional rights," Smitko said, "The Andersons are eager to move on with their lives, and hope to return to some semblance of normalcy."
-- Investigative Reporter David Hammer contributed to this report.