Peoria city officials apparently don't understand the First Amendment.
Jim Ardis, the mayor of Peoria
On the night of April 15, police in Peoria, Illinois, raided the house of my friend Jon Daniel in response to his operating a parody Twitter account mocking Peoria mayor Jim Ardis. The incident sparked a media firestorm, with Peoria all of a sudden being covered by national outlets like Al Jazeera and the Washington Post, and Ardis was condemned for what looked like a clear violation of the First Amendment. (Daniel is not being charged with any crime in connection with the Twitter account because, obviously, it’s not illegal to mock a public official.)
What wasn’t clear at the time was how intimately involved Ardis and Chief of Police Steve Settingsgaard were in ordering the raid, but according to emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, city officials were so eager to nail the author of the parody Twitter account that they had a detective comb through Illinois statutes to find something to charge him with, in the process bungling the legal aspects of the case and drawing the ire of local citizens.
Ardis and others learned of the account on March 11 and sent dozens of emails over the next few days, apparently panicked by the idea that someone with a few dozen Twitter followers was making fun of the mayor. On March 12, Ardis himself asked City Manager Patrick Urich, “Any chance we can put a sense of urgency on this?” Urich passed that request on to Settingsgaard, saying, “Quickly please.”
On March 13, Ardis emailed Settingsgaard and told him he wanted to pursue criminal charges against whoever was running the account, @peoriamayor, apparently unaware that no crime had been committed. “I will absolutely prosecute,” the mayor wrote to the chief. “Bring it on.”
A day later, the first of three search warrants relating to the case was filed. At that time, the account had already been marked a parody, according to documents gleaned from one of three FOIA requests filed by Muckrock.
A screenshot of some of the parody account's Tweets.
Parody accounts are allowed by Twitter as long as they are clearly marked as satire, and the social network informed city officials of this after they requested to have the account shut down. Despite this, and despite the fact that Twitter ended up suspending the account on March 20, Ardis and Settingsgaard continued to press the matter for weeks afterward.
“It's not a joke & it's not funny,” Ardis wrote to Settingsgaard on April 16, the day after the raid. “I want this Prosecuted because what they did was WRONG.”
The next day Ardis and Settingsgaard exchanged several emails after an Associated Press reporter contacted the pair seeking comment on the raid—by then, the story was becoming a national punchline. Settingsgaard sought the mayor’s permission to talk with the journalist.
“Jim, do you have a problem with me speaking (to the reporter) and telling them that this account violated Illinois law, with no indication that it was meant to be a parody until well into the investigation, and that you filed a criminal complaint?” Settingsgaard wrote to Ardis. “I can also ignore it and let them spin it the way they want to spin it.”
“Go ahead,” Ardis responded. “And tell them you couldn’t print what (Daniel) wrote in the paper or say it on TV because it was so crude.”
“I like that,” Settingsgaard replied. “For anyone in the media who would like to say that we should not prosecute this, I challenge them to print or cite what was written there word for word. It was patently offensive.”
The tweets Daniel posted portrayed Ardis as partying and hanging out with strippers, a la Toronto’s Rob Ford. For instance, on March 12 @peoriamayor tweeted, “2 fucking things to get off my chest. 1. If you don’t like Peoria and u wanna sit here and bitch about den leave. 2. Who stole my crackpipe?” The day before, Daniel had the fake mayor say, “Im up all night and woke up with pussy on my breath and blood shot eyes and we got people talking about live tweeting. Let me do my job u do urs.”
Though Settingsgaard presumably agreed with the mayor that the tweets were a nasty piece of work, he didn’t think they constituted a crime, and neither did James Feehan, a detective the chief consulted with. In a March 11 email sent to Ardis, Settingsgaard expressed this belief (emphasis mine):
“Mayor/Manager, I reviewed this matter with Detective Feehan. He is in the process of shutting down the account as you saw from my last email. This phony Twitter account does not constitute a criminal violation in that no threats are made. I'm not sure if it would support a civil suit for defamation of character. I'm not an expert in the civil arena but my recollection is that public officials have very limited protection from defamation. I asked (Ardis) about identity theft and he advised it did not qualify because the statute requires the use of personal identifying information such as a social security number, DOB, etc., and a financial gain form (sic) the use of that information. Twitter does not require identifying information other than an email address and name, and there appears to be no financial gain.”
The email was backed up by one Feehan sent that same morning (again, emphasis mine):
“I looked at the comments and photographs posted by the suspect. Nothing contained within amounts to criminal violations. However, there are tweets posted by the individual which amount to defamation. Without a subpoena issued to Twitter to obtain the IP address of the account creator, there is not much else we can do. I did send Twitter the report of the impersonating account and requested it be removed asap.”
That reading of the law—that Daniel hadn't committed a crime when he posed as a grotesque version of Ardis—shifted over the next two days. The change in opinion came when Feehan discovered Illinois statute 720 ILCS 5/17-2, which dealt with “false personification.” Settingsgaard reported to Ardis:
“Feehan is preparing a notice to advise Twitter that the account violates Illinois law and an order that would cause Twitter to preserve the record for evidentiary purposes. Is it correct to assume that you wish to prosecute the offender criminally? It is a misdemeanor but it is still a crime. If so we can proceed on it. Feehan will need to meet with you to take a formal complaint from you.
We will also check with the (State’s Attorney’s Office) to make sure we are interpreting and applying this new statute correctly. I believe we are.”
Peoria County Judge Kirk Schoenbein agreed, and on March 14 authorized the warrant that allowed police to obtain the IP address linked to the parody account. Judge Lisa Wilson signed off on another warrant on March 29 that gave police the right to obtain a massive store of data from Comcast, the internet service provider at the home of Daniel’s roommate Jake Elliott (who, thanks to the raid, is now dealing with an unrelated drug charge for possession of marijuana). In his search warrant affidavit, detective Stevie Hughes wrote that there was “probable cause to believe” that the seized data would contain “evidence, fruits, contraband, and instrumentalities of the dissemination and possession of child pornography.”
Far left, the author, middle, Jake Elliott, far right, Jon Daniel
But that wasn’t enough.
Police had a name and an address. And they thought they had the person behind the account in Elliott. So Hughes filed for a third warrant, this one allowing police to seize electronics from the home. The warrant was approved by Peoria County Judge Kim Kelley, and called for the seizure of numerous electronic devices as well as “heroin, cocaine, and drug paraphernalia.”
None of that stuff was found in the home, and in fact the premise of the raid—that someone was violating 720 ILCS 5/17-2—was legally shaky. While the subsection of the statute that deals specifically with public officials makes it a crime to impersonate one in person, it does not specifically state that doing so online is a criminal act. This caveat was addressed in an email sent from Settingsgaard to Urich on April 18—three days after the raid—that had “Twitter problem” as the subject line.
“Det. Feehan is going to review with [Peoria County State’s Attorney Jerry] Brady on Monday but there may be an internet exception to the impersonating statute. If it is exempt, everyone missed it from the investigators to the (State’s Attorney’s Office) and the judges.”
Following the raid, police interrogated Elliott and his girlfriend, Michelle Pratt, about the parody account and took Daniel and another roommate in for questioning. At that time Daniel refused to talk, but told me police confiscated his phone without his consent as part of their investigation. Late on April 17, city staff began talking about the swelling media attention. In one email thread between city employee Rachel Cook and Chief Information Officer Sam Rivera, they discussed the backlash to the police raid that was being directed at the city’s official Facebook and Twitter pages. Rivera linked to a CNET.com story about the raid and said, “It’s only going to get worse.” By the next day, Rivera saw fit to forward his email exchanges with Cook to Ardis, Settingsgaard, City Manager Patrick Urich.
Just a few moments before sharing the thread, Cook asked Rivera: “Does mayor (sic), (City Attorney Sonni Williams), or Settingsgaard know how widespread this is yet?”
If they didn’t by then, they soon would.
Peoria County State's Attorney Jerry Brady at a press conference April 25. Brady announced that day that no charges would be filed in relation to the Twitter account.
Four days later, on April 22, Ardis, Urich, and Williams were grilled by members of the Peoria City Council over what had become known as the “Twitter raid.” Additionally, several citizens spoke in damning terms about the actions of police, the mayor, and whoever else had been involved in the investigation. None were as scolding as Elliott’s grandmother Caroline, though, who spoke in soft but admonishing tones to Ardis and told him that while the account was certainly not in the best taste, it didn’t amount to a crime.
“It was my grandson in that house. And the stories he’s telling, and the other kids who are in that house are telling, are absolutely ridiculous,” she said. “I just wonder, what happened with you sending the squad to my grandson’s residence?
“I don’t think you need to use your employees as weapons to get even with the citizens of this city," she went on. "We have the right to stand up for what we believe in. We have the right to have freedom of speech in this country.”
Caroline Elliott’s sentiment was echoed in dozens of emails sent from around the country and the world. The communications are part of nearly 200 emails released through the FOIA request, which in addition to showing a massive amount of messages sent between police and city staff also show the full scope of vitriol from the Twittersphere.
“Keeping the world safe from Twitter. I guess there is no Constitutional Oath sworn by your officers,” a man named Dave wrote to the police department. “My sincere hope is your department feels the wrath of the web for your corrupt actions.”
Somewhat ironically, the tweets Ardis had called “filth” and “sexual doggeral” were G-rated compared to the threats of murder, maiming, and rape coming from across the country. As the level of hatred in the complaint emails rose and climaxed, Ardis and the city government clammed up, in full-on damage control.
When I emailed Settingsgaard for comment, he defended the handling of the case, saying the number of emails between the cops and city employees over the Twitter raid was “not typical but not unheard of either.” When I said that many saw the whole case as an egregious waste of taxpayer resources, he replied, “I don't believe there were as many man hours spent on the case as some would believe. Oftentimes people equate the amount of media coverage with the amount of time spent by the police on the case when the two have little to no relationship.” (You can read his full responses to my questions here.)
For his part, Brady said his office’s involvement in what has turned into a national debacle that has caused many to question whether a lawsuit could punish Ardis and the city for possible First and Fourth Amendment violations, was done by the book.
“From our standpoint this is how investigations normally proceed,” Brady said. “Communication may have been more broad just due to the nature of this alleged offense—that it did involve a public official.”
Ardis did not return an email seeking comment.