This article has been updated from the original post at 3:40 p.m.
Whatcom County Sheriff Elfo and the county prosecutor’s office have withdrawn their search warrant for facebook messages. The search warrant, granted last week, was being challenged by the ACLU office in Seattle, as represented by attorney LaRond Baker. In the face of the challenge, the sheriff and prosecutor have withdrawn their search warrant.
The Tuesday, March 14, court hearing on the sheriff’s search warrant, which was scheduled before Whatcom County Superior Court Judge Charles Snyder, has been cancelled.
It all revolves around the protest blocking Interstate 5 a few weeks ago. As the local authorities were unable to respond during the full hour protest, they were unable to arrest any protestors. Since then, they have been seeking the identification of participants via social media, requesting everyone to identify those they think may have been at the protest, and other means of investigation. The facebook warrant was the latest attempt
The ACLU asserted the warrant was an unlawful intrusion on the First Amendment right of free speech and would have a “chilling effect” on protected speech.
To some local political activists, it was a fishing expedition by the sheriff. If served, they believe the warrant would have discouraged local public participation in online blogs and social media.
The sheriff’s department declined to comment, referring me to the prosecutor’s office. I phoned the prosecutor’s office, but their answering system hangs up on you if you do not enter an extension code. There are no codes listed on their web page. “0” does not get a receptionist. I will drive to the courthouse on Tuesday in an attempt to get information.
The ACLU also notes the warrant “failed to meet the basic requirement under the Fourth Amendment” in that it was a general, overly broad search request. A fishing expedition. The sheriff wanted to look at everything in the hopes of finding something he could use for prosecution of something. The Fourth Amendment protects us and our effects from unreasonable searches.
I have talked with two people associated with Whatcom County government who expect the sheriff and prosecutor will redo their search warrant, narrowing it in scope, and reissuing it. They expect this to happen quickly.
There is a facebook page named “no dapl bellingham” (dapl = dakota access pipe line), and this site has news and information by those persons concerned with the construction of the pipe line. The sheriff apparently thinks if he can have his investigators learn who all has been to this site and commented, or who the supposed people behind this site are, that he can then investigate those folks for prosecution. Or perhaps even find incriminating comments that can be used as evidence against people. The sheriff is apparently seeking to find about 100 suspects for prosecution. There may be other facebook pages the sheriff also wants to search - or will be if he can get this first search warrant. A classic fishing expedition.
Local activists are also looking at ways of clogging up the search for suspects by volunteering that they have visited those facebook pages - even if they have not done so. For this writer, this brings back memories of the late 1960s and 70s when anti war activists tricked authorities searching for reasons to prosecute those who dared to speak out.