HOUMA, La. -- A Terrebonne Parish judge on Friday stood by his decision to authorize the sheriff's office to seize a Houma police officer's computers earlier this week under the theory they were used to post a blog that may have defamed the sheriff.
Sheriff Jerry Larpenter's deputies raided the home of Houma Police Officer Wayne Anderson on Tuesday. Judge Randall Bethancourt approved the search warrant based on a complaint from Tony Alford, an insurance agent whose firms broker coverage for both the sheriff's office and the Terrebonne Parish government.
In an affidavit supporting the warrant, Alford complains that a website called ExposeDAT and a Facebook page under the fictitious name John Turner defamed him and his business Alford, Staples, Lapeyre & Robichaux. He contested a claim on the Facebook page that Larpenter continued to pay broker fees to Alford even as the sheriff's wife, Priscilla, makes a six-figure salary running Alford's office. Alford said the sheriff's brokerage contract is with a firm owned by his business partner, Christian Lapeyre, but he admitted that as Lapeyre's partner, he does share in the proceeds.
"I think that right there acknowledges that if he was a beneficiary of it, then he was a part of that contract and certainly, again, individuals in the community should be able to question that," said Anderson's attorney, David Ardoin.
Ardoin argued that Bethancourt made a mistake approving the warrant because the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled the state's criminal defamation statute unconstitutional as it relates to comments about public officials or private individuals engaged in public affairs.
But Bethancourt said he had to stay within the "four corners" of the warrant and affidavit and said he couldn't tell if Alford was a public official. Frustrated, Ardoin pointed out that Alford is on the Levee Board, but what's relevant is that the comments in the complaint were about public affairs and should be protected speech.
Bethancourt countered that Louisiana’s criminal defamation statute is "pretty broad" and said he would allow the state to "take a look-see at these computers that might have defamatory statements on them."
Bethancourt also said the matter pertains to Jennifer Goulas, who is Anderson's wife, but no information was given about her involvement.
Bethancourt granted a stay for 15 days so Anderson's attorneys could appeal to a higher court. Attorney Jerri Smitko, who also represents Anderson, said she and Ardoin plan to file a malicious prosecution complaint in federal court.
The sheriff's office was represented at the hearing by the Attorney General's office because Terrebonne Parish District Attorney Joseph Waitz Jr. was also mentioned in the blog. Assistant Attorney General Barry Milligan said the affidavit, once approved by Bethancourt, is presumed valid and speaks for itself.
Legal experts have called the raid on a critic’s home by the sheriff’s office "extraordinary" and a likely violation of the First Amendment right to free speech and the Fourth Amendment protection against unlawful search and seizure.
Larpenter has defended his decision in blunt terms.
"If you're gonna lie about me and make it under a fictitious name, I'm gonna come after you,” Larpenter told WWL-TV earlier this week.
The posts and comments that prompted the sheriff to take such extraordinary action were published on the website ExposeDAT.in/wp.
Some of the anonymous posts note the connections between Larpenter's wife and Alford, and point out that Alford just lined up new insurance coverage for the parish government without going through a public bid process and without an authorizing ordinance that the parish attorney has said is required.
Alford owns multiple businesses with Parish President Gordon Dove, who, the parish acknowledges, engaged Alford as the parish’s new insurance agent-of-record without any public bid.
Dove told WWL-TV that he is considering suing whoever posted the website, in part because it mentions his daughter, who is married to an assistant district attorney. He also defended the hiring of Alford because his insurance agency is local and would replace an out-of-parish consulting firm.
The parish president said mistakes may have been made in failing to pass an ordinance and sign a contract for Alford to serve as the parish’s agent of record, but he said if necessary that would be rectified at the next parish council meeting.
Dove, a former state legislator, said public officials should be able to use the criminal defamation statute.
Loyola Law Professor and ethics attorney Dane Ciolino said the various contracts discussed on the ExposeDAT site raise questions under state ethics laws.
“Those contracts should be examined. And the notion that search warrants are issuing and the house of a media commentator is being searched for the content of speech posted on a public website is absolutely extraordinary,” Ciolino said. “It’s amazing we’re having this conversation in Louisiana rather than in Iran.”
After the raid, Houma Police Chief Dana Coleman suspended Anderson from the force indefinitely, placing him on paid administrative leave.
Another of Anderson’s attorneys, Matthew Ory, says he has not yet received paperwork on the suspension, but that they were told Coleman alleges Anderson didn’t uphold the law and committed conduct unbecoming an officer.
Smitko said that it’s common knowledge the defamation law is unconstitutional, yet authorities are using it to “trample” on the rights of a man she called a “good police officer and a decent citizen.”
"When the very statute that’s relied upon in this search warrant is unconstitutional in these circumstances, how can you have probable cause?" she asked.