Louisiana sheriff (Jerry Larpenter) illegally uses criminal libel law to unmask a critic

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

The Intercept (Naomi LaChance) has been reporting on Louisiana sheriff Jerry Larpenter's efforts to identify a blogger who was criticizing the sheriff and others. Larpenter got a name—Wayne Anderson—from AT&T and then got a search warrant for Anderson's house. To do that, the sheriff had to allege that there was a crime committed: That crime, he said, was criminal libel of Anthony Alford, one of the people criticized on the blog.

But Louisiana Supreme Court decisions make clear that the Louisiana criminal libel law can't be applied to speech (even false speech) about public officials, or for that matter about private figures involved in public matters. And Alford was the president of a local board, so Friday the Louisiana Court of Appeal ruled (Terrebonne Parish Sheriff's Office v. Anderson) that the search warrant was invalid:

The probable cause affidavit submitted in support of the application for the search warrant is premised upon a violation of Louisiana Revised Statute 14: 47. 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. See New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964); Garrison v. State of Louisiana, 379 U.S.64 (1964); State v. Snyder, 277 So. 2d 660, 668 (La. 1973) (on rehearing), rev'd on other grounds, 305 So. 2d 334 (La. 1974); State v. Defley, 395 So. 2d 759, 761-62 (La. 1981). Anthony Alford, the supposed victim, is President of the Terrebonne Parish Levee and Conservation Boardof Louisiana, and a public official. Consequently, the search warrant lacks probable cause because the conduct complained of is not a criminally actionable offense. The ruling of the district court denying the motion to quash the search warrant is reversed, the motion is granted, and the search warrant is quashed.

Of course, this is at least partly too late for Anderson, whose identity Larpenter learned by relying on an unconstitutional application of criminal libel law. But it's good that at least the Court of Appeal recognized the invalidity of the warrant (and thus the unconstitutionality of the search).