Litigation group seeks to block Leesburg police’s Facebook search warrant

A 9/11 protest that left a message painted on the sidewalk outside Attorney General Mark Herring’s home in downtown Leesburg prompted the town’s police force to obtain a search warrant to find out who was responsible for the crime . Now the activists who led the protest are asking the court to block this search.

On the evening of September 11, the Leesburg Police Department received a report of 20 to 25 people wearing black masks gathering outside Herring’s home. The group, which would later be the Free Them All VA Coalition, was protesting the transfer of migrant detainees by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement to the Farmville Detention Center, where a COVID-19 outbreak ensued and makes a death.

Coalition members painted “LIBEREN A TODXS” and “FREE THEM ALL!” in big blue letters on the city sidewalk.

Although coalition members claimed the paint could be easily removed, Loudoun County fire crews were unable to wash it off. Staff from the city’s public works department subsequently removed the paint.

Leesburg Police Department public information officer Michael Drogin said the agency had previously charged one person, Jessie Patton, 29 from Fairfax, with the misdemeanor of destroying property. The agents were finally able to execute this warrant on Sunday.

To determine who else was responsible for the property damage, the police department asked a magistrate on September 15 to issue a search warrant for information on the Free Them All VA Coalition Facebook page.

Drogin said the magistrate signed the search warrant and it was served on Facebook, but no information has yet reached the department.

The scope of the search warrant included: “All subscriber records, including names, addresses, phone numbers, length of service, credit card information, email addresses, and recent login / logout IP addresses.” All content / wall posts, messages, discussions, videos and images on deleted material included.

The Free Them All VA Coalition – which claims on its Facebook page to be an abolitionist coalition that aims to “amplify the organization and the voices of those incarcerated in detention centers, prisons and prisons in Virginia” – asserted that the scope was too wide. On October 13, the coalition, through its legal advisor the Public Citizen Litigation Group, filed a motion to quash the search warrant.

“The mandate is clearly too broad. Most of the documents requested have nothing to do with the investigation for which the police requested the warrant, ”the motion said.

The Public Citizen group wrote in an October 14 blog post that although the search warrant was limited to the period September 10 to 15, posts and messages from earlier periods remain in the private section of the Free Facebook page. Them All VA and could be the subject of the warrant.

Many of those messages, according to the litigation group, relate to the health and immigration status of the posters and their families. The group also claims that there are messages related to political strategies “aimed at effecting changes in public policies”.

The motion clarifies that the research would allow the government to examine private communications on strategies outlining ways to disagree with elected officials and to generate public opposition to the policies and practices of those officials, which could lead to discrimination and reprisals against these individuals and their families.

“… [Y]You might have law enforcement officials going through a whole bunch of confidential messages, having nothing to do with the alleged crime of painting words on a sidewalk, ”the lawsuit wrote in its blog post for the 14th. October. He noted in his October 13 petition that sidewalk damage cost the city less than $ 1,000 to repair.

In addition to representing the Free Them All VA coalition, the Public Citizen group also represents three anonymous Facebook users who were not at the protest outside Herring’s house, but who fear personal suffering if identified as associates. to the Facebook group. .

The litigation group says “browsing irrelevant documents” is interpreted as an “exploratory search,” according to the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches and seizures. The group also claims that the search for the Free Them All VA Facebook page would violate the rights of its members under the First Amendment, which, the litigation group wrote in its blog post, “… bar[s] investigations that unjustifiably cool the freedom of expression of unpopular groups.

More generally, the information of Facebook users who would simply follow and like the Free Them All VA Facebook page could be the subject of search warrant requests, says the group Public Citizen. The group also says police officers could use the additional information they receive from the search warrant to charge individuals with more crimes than they could have charged had the warrant been narrower in scope.

The group is asking the court to include some limitations on the search warrant even if it does not completely override it, perhaps by limiting the search to certain keywords and “withholding any government identification data unless and until it is revealed to a judge. satisfaction that a particular message or image is potentially evidence of a crime. “

Responding to claims that the scope of the search warrant is too broad, Drogin said the language included in “is consistent with the execution of search warrants on social media sites.”

The Criminal Investigation Section of the Leesburg Police Department continues to investigate the 9/11 incident.

A scheduling date of November 10 has been set by the Loudoun County Circuit Court on the issue of the search warrant quashing motion. A response to the Public Citizen group’s request has not yet been filed.

As for the COVID-19 cases at the Farmville Detention Center, four inmates filed a lawsuit in federal court against the US Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE, on July 21. They urge the court to order the federal agency to reform the conditions. in the detention center and comply with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by prohibiting all transfers to and out of the detention center.

According to the lawsuit, ICE transferred 74 inmates to the Farmville Detention Center from detention centers in Florida and Arizona in June without first testing the detainees for COVID-19. Among those transferred, 51 have tested positive for COVID-19. As of July, at least 315 inmates, more than 80% of the centre’s population, had tested positive for the virus, according to the trial. On August 5, a 72-year-old Canadian inmate held at the Farmville Detention Center died after testing positive for COVID-19 a month earlier, according to an August 7 statement from the ICE.

Although the Farmville Detention Center is federally owned and operated by ICE, several organizations have called on Herring and Governor Ralph Northam to take action to protect the health of inmates.

Charlotte Gomer, Herring’s press secretary, said Herring shares concerns others have expressed about COVID-19 issues at the Farmville Detention Center.

“[Herring] will continue to urge the Trump administration to take the COVID crisis more seriously and meet its obligations to ensure the health and safety of those in its care, ”Gomer said.

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