Time for ExposeDat litigants to throw in the towel
It is rare that we as a newspaper find ourselves confessing that we are tired of reading stories about a particular topic, especially one fraught with controversy and pathos.
That is, however, the position we find ourselves in concerning the matter before U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, titled Anderson v. Larpenter.
It arises, as anyone in Terrebonne Parish must know at this point, from reaction to a blog written by Jennifer Anderson, wife of Houma police officer Wayne Anderson, which drew attention to the various connections business and familial between individuals doing business with the parish government and also the Sheriff’s Office. Sheriff Jerry Larpenter, acting on the complaint of insurance broker and levee board president Tony Alford, authorized his detectives to obtain a warrant if one could be had, in furtherance of an investigation into the possibility that whoever was posting the blog and duplicating the information on a Facebook page was violating Louisiana’s statute that makes defamation of a person a criminal offense.
At that time the identity of the blogger or bloggers was not known. But who had been offended certainly was.
Once the location of the computer from which the blog had been posted was known, due to preliminary warrants served on internet service providers, an additional warrant was obtained for the home of the Andersons and their electronic devices were seized. The execution of that warrant changed parish history.
What had been a non-objective and forgettable foray into muck-raking suddenly became a local best-seller. People who might never have known the innuendo-laden material existed suddenly had it in front of their eyes. In short, might made for a lot of write. Everybody wrote about the case. David had found his Goliath. The chief problem was that most of the law used was unconstitutional, in particular when the defamation alleged was after a public official. Alford as president of the local levee board is a public official. Parish President Gordon Dove is a public official, as is the sheriff. Then the case scaled back. Alford was dismissed as a plaintiff, as was the Terrebonne Levee and Conservation District. Then Gordon Dove and the Andersons settled out of court, to the tune of $50,000.
That leaves Sheriff Jerry Larpenter standing alone before some serious tort claims, and taxpayer dollars right there with him.
After reviewing this case ad nauseum we have come to several conclusions. The Sheriff made a judgment call, albeit a bad one. We don’t expect law enforcement officers to always know the finer points of law. That’s why they seek warrants to begin with, because the judges who grant them are expected to have enough knowledge of the law and the community to make sound decisions. It is unfortunate that Judge Bethancourt did not know Alford was a public official. He should have known, certainly that even if he was not, the matter in question had to do with transactions and contracts involving public entities. On that basis alone the buck should have stopped with Bethancourt, who has absolute immunity in this matter and so cannot be sued. The 1st Circuit Court of Appeals, declaring the warrant invalid, did what should have been done in this matter to begin with.
But the damage was already done.
Were this case to one day go to trial, Larpenter would no doubt be found at fault to some degree, as he doesn’t live in an igloo either, and as sheriff cannot be permitted to plead ignorance of the law altogether. During various interviews concerning this case our reporters have heard Larpenter voice his reasons for pursuing the case. He has expressed concern that application of the law in question makes false accusations against public officials without a demand for accountability easy to bring as tying a shoelace. Jerry Larpenter has a long record of protecting rather than violating peoples’ constitutional rights. Can he be wrong about the law? Yes. Should it be a federal case? It already is. But it appears that this federal case, with all other defendants peeled away, need not linger in the courts longer.
It is our hope that the sheriff and the plaintiffs can come to a reasonable settlement so that the parish’s chief law enforcement officer, his attorneys and deputies can focus on threats from hurricanes and crime. It is our hope that the Andersons’ stated concerns for good government in the parish will allow them to give the sheriff some leeway, so that they can get on with their lives.
Sheriff Larpenter has made some points during the course of this case that we respect, even if we have some areas of disagreement. The Andersons have certainly made theirs. We hope to have word soon that this case through mutual consent of the parties has finally been closed. Continued litigation and mounting legal fees will do nobody any good.