Should People Have Called the Cops Over Cesar Sayoc's MAGA Van?
Last week's arrest of the 56-year-old Republican for allegedly mailing pipe bombs to Trump critics makes you wonder.
Left Image: (Courtesy of Lesley Abravanel via AP). Right Image: Cesar Sayoc after a 2015 arrest. (Photo by Broward County Sheriff's Office/Wikimedia Commons)
Cesar Altieri Sayoc’s van was hard to miss on the streets and in the parking lots of Miami-Dade County.
In the months leading up to the 56-year-old's arrest for allegedly mailing at least 14 pipe bombs to prominent Democrats and critics of President Donald Trump, Sayoc had transformed his ride into a crude mobile billboard of ultra-right wing memes and conspiracy theories. Some of the windows featured white decal letters spelling out alleged achievements, such as “Pres. Trump creates 28,000 new jobs in February alone. Obama-Democrats lost 286,000 jobs.”
But the positive messages were drowned out by uglier ones depicting Michael Moore, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, among others, caught in red target crosshairs.
After media outlets broadcast images of Sayoc’s ride being impounded by FBI agents, Miami locals began posting photos of the van taken as far back as last winter. David Cypkin, a documentarian whose four photos of the van went viral after his co-producer Billy Corben tweeted them, told me he decided to take pictures one day last December while walking his dog near the parking lot of the Waterways Shoppes in Aventura, the city in which Sayoc once lived. (According to various media reports, Sayoc was actually living inside his van).
“This van was there regularly for over a year,” Cypkin said. “I had seen the van dozens of times and found it particularly unsettling. It always struck me because of the crazy conspiratorial stickers covering the windows.”
But even as the inflammatory rhetoric on the windows of Sayoc’s van attracted the curiosity of nervous onlookers, conversations with federal law enforcement and free speech experts suggested the decals and the messaging alone likely did not represent actionable criminal conduct. In other words, despite hate crimes being on the rise and the majority of extremist violence being carried out by right-wing white supremacists, a violence-adorned MAGA van is almost certainly just that: a vehicle some Americans might find objectionable.
“You can’t do anything about the stickers and the decals,” Chris Quick, a former FBI joint terrorism task force agent, told me. “That is free speech. It doesn’t matter if it was one or 20 stickers.”
Leo Martinez, a private investigator based in Sarasota, Florida, who worked 25 years as a G-Man, agreed. “If the stickers are just about ‘Vote for Trump,’ and ‘CNN sucks,’ then, like everyone, its a form of expression protected under the First Amendment,” he told me. “The trigger point would be if he is advocating anything of a violent nature against someone.”
That’s where things get messier: Sayoc danced right up against the line that might draw police scrutiny by showcasing images that alluded to the assassination of prominent Americans, Martinez argued.
Still, Clay Calvert, a legal scholar who serves as director of the University of Florida Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project, said in an interview that the messages and images were protected free speech unless investigators and prosecutors could show they represented what’s called a "true threat." Typically, that’s when a person threatens another person via a one-on-one communication or posting on social media—and it could be reasonably interpreted as a harbinger of imminent harm.
“The sniper scope images of individuals would be the closest thing possible to make an argument that the speech on the side of the van constitutes a threat of violence, and therefore would be unprotected by the First Amendment,” Calvert told me. “However, that is a difficult case to make.”
For his part, Cypkin, the filmmaker, said he was leery of getting too close to the van because he suspected someone was sleeping in it. “The van was parked directly in front of Sarah’s Tent, a Kosher supermarket,” he told me. “That always troubled me.” Nevertheless, he never called Aventura Police about the van being parked for days at a time in the shopping center.
Chris Goranitis, an Aventura Police spokesman, declined to indicate whether the department has ever received calls or complaints about Sayoc’s van. “This is under FBI investigation and we are not able to release any information at this time,” he wrote in an email.
But on the morning of Sayoc’s arrest last week, Cypkin said he received a text from his girlfriend asking if the van on news reports was the same one. “I pulled out my phone and started going through my pictures,” he said. “When I saw it was the same van, I called the FBI tip line.”
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