The ACLU is going after the mayor of Peoria, Illinois.
Jon Daniel talks with a friend the night before meeting with the ACLU, who announced today they plan on filing a lawsuit on Daniel's behalf.
It seems incredible that a bored man who created a parody Twitter account while sitting on the edge of his bed while his son watched Spongebob Squarepants would have his home raided by the cops and wind up at the center of one of the oddest scandals in Peoria, Illinois political history, but that’s exactly where Jon Daniel finds himself. And now that the Illinois branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is getting involved, Daniel’s life is likely to get odder still.
Today the ACLU announced it plans to file a lawsuit on the grounds that @peoriamayor, a Twitter handle Daniel created that parodied Peoria mayor Jim Ardis, is protected speech and the police raid was therefore uncalled for.
"Mr. Daniel, like other parodists, has a First Amendment right to post these tweets,” spokesman Ed Yohnka said in a statement.“He was engaging in a time-honored tradition of poking fun at public officials—even when the public official doesn’t like it. Because Mr. Daniel’s activities were protected, they should never have led to a warrant and search of his home.”
Ardis likely doesn’t see it that way—the mayor was so incensed by a Twitter account with a measly 50 followers that portrayed him as a crack-smoking party animal that he complained to police in March, and the cops showed up at Daniel’s door with a search warrant on April 15, took several of his housemates in for hours of questioning, and seized video game consoles, computers, tablets, and phones.
On the train ride to his downtown hotel in Chicago on May 5, after signing the contract that made the ACLU’s representation of him official, Daniel was in a thoughtful mood. Over and over again he marvelled at the absurdity of the situation he was in.
“This is something that’s going to be attached to me for the rest of my life,” he said on a darkened El train. “Pre-raid everything was cool.” Now things are crazy. Bizarre. Life-altering. Scary.
“Every police officer in the city of Peoria knows my name,” he said, “That don’t make me feel too safe.”
The inspiration for @peoriamayor came from Twitter parody accounts like Drunk Patrick Kane and Drunk Jay Cutler. (Daniel is a Chicago sports nut who has the Bears’ logo tattooed on his right forearm.) Prior to mocking Ardis, Daniel operated an account that purported to be someone representing Lea and Perrins steak sauce. Basically, Daniel would search for people tweeting about steak and tell them, “Make sure you put some Lea and Perrins on that bitch!”
The fake Jim Ardis account was at times a bit crude, according to Ardis, and that descriptor was co-opted by the Peoria newspaper here in some of its reporting. That’s a point of contention for Daniel.
“That was Ardis’s way to describe it,” Daniel said of the word crude. “Then (the newspaper) just runs with that and everyone believes them because they can’t find the tweets themselves.”
No matter how offensive the tweets were, if Peoria doesn’t settle out of court—which seems likely—the city’s attorneys will almost surely be eviscerated by the dozen-plus ACLU lawyers who have been working over every aspect of the case for weeks now. The thinness of the city’s argument that Daniel was doing something illegal is evident from a glut of emails exchanged by city officials about the case obtained through several Freedom of Information Act requests.
Among those communications is an email from Beth Jensen, an at-large member of the Peoria City Council. In it, Jensen questioned Ardis about whether the city’s interim corporate counsel Sonni Williams had been consulted in the lead-up to the raid. If not, Jensen wrote, was that because Ardis and City Manager Patrick Urich had a “lack of trust or confidence in (William’s) abilities?” These emails also show that Chief of Police Steve Settingsgaard and a detective in the department’s cyber crimes unit didn’t think Daniel’s tweets amounted to a chargeable offense, but after some deliberation (and dozens of emails), they changed their tune and decided that @peoriamayor amounted to “personation of a public official,” a misdemeanor in Illinois.
The cops got three warrants that forced Twitter to give up the account’s IP address, got the internet service provider to provide the physical location of the house attached to the IP address, and allowed police to raid the home, confiscate electronics found there, and examine them for a wide array of possible crimes. The cops also got a judge's permission to search the house for drugs, because in several of @peoriamayor’s over-the-top tweets Daniel reference smoking weed and doing blow.
No hard drugs were found, but the cops came across a few ounces of weed, and Daniel’s roommate, Jake Elliot is still dealing with that charge. (Elliot has asked for help in raising funds to hire a lawyer, and there’s a Change.org petition to have his charges dropped.) And ten days after the raid, State’s Attorney Jerry Brady announced no charges would be filed related to the Twitter account. But it’s the actions of Ardis and police—which may have violated Daniel’s right to free speech and protection against unreasonable search and seizure—that have many people pissed and made this a national story. Those possible First and Fourth Amendment violations have the Illinois ACLU salivating over what could be a slam-dunk of a case.
Prior to his meeting with a roomful of lawyers, Daniel said he was worried that he’ll be seen as greedy, that a monetary settlement will cause a shift in a court of public opinion that has so far been supportive of Daniel and his crew.
“Are people going to be happy that I just took taxpayer money?” he said of a possible settlement the night before he signed the contract with the ACLU. “That money ain’t coming out of Ardis’s bank account.”
Daniel in Chicago after celebrating signing a contract with the ACLU.
Ardis is a fairly popular politician, or at least he was until the “Twitter incident,” as Wikipedia has dubbed it. The Republican and lifelong Peorian is in his third term after running unopposed in an election last April, and under his tenure the city has built the Peoria Riverfront Museum and a baseball stadium—both of which have been the subjects of scrutiny over their partly taxpayer-subsidized births and subsequent lives. (The museum in particular is a constant source of aggravation for many in town. Its finances are shaky, and attendance hasn’t been stellar.) Ardis, whose mayoral duties are part-time, ran on a platform of not being a well-connected politician or fat cat—in addition to the $37,800 he made last year for being the Peoria’s mayor and liquor commissioner, Ardis also works for Axis IT&T, an engineering firm. Not that Daniel was aware of any of this when he started @peoriamayor. Actually, he told me in Chicago, he didn’t even know who the mayor was.
“It took me two seconds to find him. It took me two seconds to find his picture and his email,” Daniel said. “And that was it. So for (the police) to say I went to ‘great lengths’ to create it is just a huge overstatement.”
Daniel is concerned that his now very public stand-off with the mayor will hurt his chances of finding work in the future—even if he didn't do anything wrong, it's still sure to draw some raised eyebrows from some potential employers. The court battle is a David vs. Goliath scenario that may have flipped with the involvement of the ACLU. Though Daniel’s case looks pretty strong right now, he acknowledges that many people are victims of police overreach and shaky warrants; he's only where he is now because a few journalists (including me) wrote about his situation and it struck a chord with many thanks to the sheer ridiculousness of police showing up at his door due to a few Twitter jokes.
“I’m lucky. I know that. Our whole house is lucky,” Daniel told me. “They didn’t know they were raiding a house that was close to journalist-type people. If it wasn’t for that they would have swept it under the rug. They messed up.”