This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, April 17, 2002

April 17, 2002 - Tattered Cover Bookstore v. City of Thornton

Here are the facts.

The Thornton police department, as part of an ongoing criminal investigation, was watching a trailer home in Thornton. They suspected it was the site of a methamphetamine lab.

On March 13, 2000, the police went through some of the home's outside trash. The officer found not only evidence of drug operations, but also a mailing envelope from the Tattered Cover addressed to "Suspect A" -- one of the people living in the trailer home, and suspected to be involved in the drug operation.

The Tattered Cover mailer listed the invoice number, order number, and customer phone number. It did not, however, list the book or books that had been mailed.

The next day, the police got a warrant to search inside the trailer. In the master bedroom, they indeed found a methamphetamine lab, and a small amount of the drug.

Some evidence was available to link the suspects to the occupants of the bedroom. However, the police didn't try to match up the fingerprints taken from the glass equipment to any of the suspects. They did find two books about how to manufacture illegal drugs. These books were observed to be "new," and to match the approximate dimensions of the Tattered Cover mailer. Based on its website information, Tattered Cover did offer both books for sale.

Subsequent analysis by police experts revealed that the two books had never been read. Other books were in the bedroom, too, but were not seized. The Thornton officer then got a Drug Enforcement Agency administrative subpoena, demanding the title of the books corresponding to the order and invoice numbers of the mailer. Joyce Meskis, owner of the Tattered Cover, contacted the store's attorney.

Then, the police officer, without informing the Adams County DA's office, got a warrant from the Denver District Attorney. The officer, and five other policeman, tried to execute the warrant on April 5, 2000. Again, Meskis called an attorney, who in turn contacted the Denver DA's office. The DA persuaded the police offers not to execute the warrant at that time.

Tattered Cover then brought suit against the City of Thornton. A trial court met to consider the search warrant's validity. That court granted a restraining order for part of the warrant (the suspect's 30 day purchasing history). Thornton subsequently abandoned that broader request.

The Colorado State Supreme Court then agreed to review the case. On April 8, 2002, they found for the Tattered Cover.

How come?

In general, the court said, "The Supreme Court recognized that both the United States and the Colorado Constitutions protect the rights of the general public to purchase books anonymously, without governmental interference."

Further, the Supreme Court stated that "The First Amendment ... protects more than simply the right to speak freely .... it safeguards a wide spectrum of activites, including ... the right to receive information and ideas."

Moreover, before law enforcement officials can obtain a warrant to discover which books a customer has purchased from an innocent, third-party bookseller, they must show a compelling need. That need must meet a specific "balancing" test:

* are there reasonable alternative methods to meet the government's need?

* is the search warrant unduly broad?

* are officials seeking the purchased records for reasons related to the CONTENTS of any particular book?

The Supreme Court concluded that the test was not met in this case, and that the warrant should not have been issued.

Why did the Tattered Cover resist the warrant? There were two reasons:
(1) Joyce Meskis believes in the right to privacy, of a confidential relationship between bookseller and book buyer.
(2) At least 100 letters from her customers attested to the fact that if book buyers thought their purchases were NOT confidential, many of them would simply stop buying books from Tattered Cover.

How does this affect your relationship with other bookstores? Meskis's bold willingness to face down six armed law enforcement officers means that the government will only have the ability to find out what books you've bought if that's the ONLY way the government can solve some important crime. They can't go fishing. They can't just ask because they think the subjects you read about incline you toward criminal behavior.

How does this affect your relationship with the library? More about that next week.

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