Has a bullying Louisiana sheriff learned his lesson about abusing power? The targets of an illegitimate and unconstitutional 2016 raid he ordered think he has. Yet Terrebonne Parish Sheriff Jerry Larpenter has received no formal discipline for his conduct.
Larpenter has reached a settlement in the civil suit filed against him by Jennifer and Wayne Anderson, whose home was raided by Larpenter's deputies in 2016 after Jennifer blogged critically about the sheriff.
"I think the sheriff's finally learned that he can't bully people and violate people's constitutional rights," Wayne, a Houma police officer, told local station WWLTV. "In our case, he stepped on the wrong people's constitutional rights because we knew our rights. Hopefully, he thinks twice the next time he gets his feelings hurt."
The trouble stems from Jennifer's pseudonymous blog, ExposeDAT, which billed itself as the area's "Underground Watchdog" and was critical of Terrebonne Parish leadership, including Larpenter. Among other things, the blog questioned the business relationship between Larpenter, Parish President Gordon Dove, and Tony Alford, an insurance agent and a commissioner on the Terrebonne Parish Levee and Conservation District Board. Alford filed a defamation complaint.
Under Louisiana's defamation statute, the crime is defined as "the malicious publication or expression in any manner, to anyone other than the party defamed, of anything which tends to expose any person to hatred, contempt or ridicule, or to deprive him of the benefit of public confidence or social intercourse; or to expose the memory of one deceased to hatred, contempt or ridicule; or to injure any person, corporation, or association of persons in his or their business or occupation." But the Louisiana Supreme Court has declared this statute unconstitutionally broad when applied to public figures—like Larpenter, Dove, or Alford.
Nonetheless, after warrants issued to Facebook and AT&T linked ExposeDAT to the Anderson household, the sheriff obtained search warrants for the couple's home and computer and for the ExposeDAT Facebook account. Terrebonne Parish deputies raided their home, seizing two computers and five cellphones (including one computer and some phones that belonged to the Anderson children).
State District Judge Randall Bethancourt, who issued the search warrants, told WWLTV he had no problem letting law-enforcement "take a look-see at these computers that might have defamatory statements on them."
The Andersons quickly filed a suit in federal court, asking it to stop police from searching the family's computers and to declare the raid and seizure unconstitutional. This week, the Andersons settled with Larpenter out of court in an undisclosed agreement.
Per the terms of the settlement, the Andersons can't say much about what went down. But in a statement, their attorney declared the agreement "a victory for citizens' right to be critical of their elected officials without fear of retribution" and said it's "reassuring to see that the Sheriff has decided to take responsibility for what he did to the Anderson's, and compensate them for the harm they suffered due to his actions."
U.S. District Court Judge Lance Africk officially dismissed the case on Thursday, but he said he retains the right to open it again if the settlement's terms aren't met in a reasonable time period.
In an earlier ruling, Africk opined that "Jennifer Anderson's speech [on ExposeDAT] falls squarely within the four corners of the First Amendment." Larventer's actions, Africk wrote, send a message that "if you speak ill of the sheriff of your parish, then the sheriff will direct his law enforcement resources toward forcibly entering your home and taking your belongings under the guise of a criminal investigation." This "would certainly chill anyone…from engaging in similar constitutionally protected speech in the future."
Meanwhile, Louisiana's 5th Circuit Court of Appeal declared there was insufficient probable cause for the warrants and declared the subsequent searches unconstitutional.
Larpenter remains head of law enforcement in Terrebonne Parish.