BATON ROUGE – A state court of appeal quashed a search warrant executed by Terrebonne Sheriff Jerry Larpenter earlier this month in an effort to unmask an anti-corruption blogger who questioned some public contracts.
The First Circuit Court of Appeal found Larpenter's use of Louisiana's criminal defamation law to get the warrant was unconstitutional because the ‘supposed victim’ in the case is a public official.
"That statute has been declared unconstitutional by both the United States Supreme Court and the Louisiana Supreme Court as it applies to public expression and publication concerning public officials, public figures and private individuals engaged in public affairs," the three-judge panel wrote in their unanimous ruling.
When a state judge in Terrebonne Parish upheld the warrant earlier this month, he was told the person claiming defamation was a public official, but he said that because the sheriff's application for the warrant didn't say that, he didn't know it to be true.
Larpenter declined to comment through his attorney Thursday.
Insurance broker and Terrebonne Parish Levee and Conservation District President Tony Alford filed the criminal complaint with the sheriff's office about Exposedat, spurring the investigation.
Terrebonne Parish Sheriff’s deputies raided the home of a Houma police officer Tuesday, Aug. 2, in hopes of uncovering who was behind an anti-corruption blog questioning public contracts involving Larpenter and other local politicians. They had been led to that home because earlier search warrants showed the Exposedat website and an associated Facebook page were built from Internet addresses registered there.
“Exposedat” is a blog, claiming to be “Terrebonne Parish’s Underground Watchdog”, that started publishing short articles about politicians and their business dealings in June.
Articles on Exposedat have called into question business dealings and relationships of other top Terrebonne Parish officials, including Parish President Gordon Dove Sr. and District Attorney Joseph Waitz Jr.
On Aug. 2, sheriff’s deputies executed a search warrant on the home of Houma Police Officer Wayne Anderson seizing computers and cell phones, alleging the blog’s author committed criminal defamation against the parish’s new insurance agent, Tony Alford.
Alford's insurance agency already had a contract to write insurance policies for Larpenter's sheriff's office, and Alford employs Larpenter's wife, Priscilla.
Anderson denied having any involvement in Exposedat. Deputies took two laptop computers, one of which belonged to Anderson's children, and five cell phones.
Anderson is a long-time police officer who formerly served as a Terrebonne Parish deputy and a New Orleans police officer.
“I’m not sure if they believe Mr. Anderson is actually the author of such work,” said Matthew Ory, Anderson’s attorney, the day after the search. After Anderson challenged the search warrant's constitutionality, Anderson's wife, Jennifer, was added to the case.
Because of the constitutional right to free speech about public affairs, the appellate court in Baton Rouge said the "search warrant lacks probable cause because the conduct complained of is not a criminally actionable offense."
The appellate ruling is a strong rebuke of state district Judge Randall Bethancourt in Terrebonne Parish, who signed off on the warrant and then ignored Anderson's attorneys' arguments about the Supreme Court rulings, defending the sheriff's right to at least "have a look-see" at the computers under the criminal defamation statute.
“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."
Loyola Law Professor Dane Ciolino originally told WWL-TV on Aug. 3 that the Exposedat blogger's comments about public affairs was protected speech under the 1st Amendment and the raid was likely unconstitutional.
But Larpenter later went on local Houma TV station HTV and told talk-show host Martin Folse that the criminal defamation law was not unconstitutional. He criticized Ciolino on the show, saying, "Now, if this so-called professor they got out of whatever college he’s from, and you know, I hate to criticize anybody, but apparently he didn’t look at the West criminal code book to find out there is a statute in Louisiana you can go by criminally."
Ciolino never said the statute didn't exist, he just said it wasn't constitutional the way Larpenter was applying it. Ciolino reacted to the ruling from the appeals court by saying it couldn't have been clearer, and the case could prove costly for the sheriff's office if the Anderson's file a federal civil rights lawsuit.
The Terrebonne Parish Clerk of Court said last week that the evidence seized has been securely kept in her office and that no one had asked to see it since the court issued a stay on the examination of the evidence.
District Attorney Waitz recused his office from handling the case. Sheriff's office attorney Bill Dodd said Larpenter has also recused himself from the case, although his office is listed as the plaintiff in the matter before the appellate court. A representative from the Louisiana Attorney General's Office handled the arguments in the initial hearing about whether there was probable cause to issue the warrant.
The Attorney General's Office did not immediately get back to WWL-TV on whether they plan to appeal the 1st Circuit decision to the Louisiana Supreme Court.