Civil Liberties

Police SWAT Raid Over Twitter Account Making Fun of Mayor Perfectly Appropriate, Judge Rules

Now, it's the tweeter's unlucky roommate who faces marijuana possession charge.

Photo Credit: Chameleon's Eye/Shutterstock.com

The police hadn’t even come for him. When four fully-armed officers of a Swat team burst into Jacob Elliott’s house in Peoria, Illinois in April they were looking for the source of a parody Twitter feed that had upset the town’s mayor by poking fun at him.

It transpired that one of Elliott’s housemates, Jon Daniel, had created the fake Twitter account, @peoriamayor, and so incensed the real-life official, Jim Ardis, with his make-believe account of drug binges and sex orgies that the police were dispatched. Elliott was just a bystander in the affair, but that didn’t stop the Swat team searching his bedroom, looking under his pillow and in a closet where they discovered a bag of marijuana and dope-smoking paraphernalia.

Elliott now faces charges of felony marijuana possession. He has also become the subject of one of the more paradoxical – if not parody – questions in American jurisprudence: can a citizen be prosecuted for dope possession when the police were raiding his home looking for a fake Twitter account?

A Peoria judge this week ruled that the police were entitled to raid the house on North University Street on 15 April under the town’s “false personation” law which makes it illegal to pass yourself off as a public official. Judge Thomas Keith found that police had probable cause to believe they would find materials relevant to the Twitter feed such as computers or flash drives used to create it.

Daniel created the social media feed when he was bored one night and thought he would amuse himself and a handful of friends by deriding the mayor. In a stream of fake comments in 140 characters, he portrayed Ardis as a Tequila-sodden, sex- and drug-addicted oaf. “Im bout to climb the civic center and do some lines on the roof who’s in,” one tweet said.

Daniel was never charged as the local prosecutor decided that “false personation” could only be committed in the flesh rather than through cyberspace. But his housemate, Elliott, still has the marijuana rap hanging over him and this week’s court ruling means that his attempt to have his charges dismissed on grounds that the original police raid was mistaken has failed.

Meanwhile, Daniel has turned the law back against the authorities in Peoria, a town with a population of 120,000. With the help of the ACLU he has filed a lawsuit against the town for wrongful arrest.

“You can’t do terrorist type of things or threaten people. But a simple joke, a parody, mocking somebody, that’s obviously not illegal,” he told Associated Press.

As for the mayor, he has tried to justify his reaction to the Twitter spoof by claiming that it had damaged his standing. “My identity as mayor was stolen,” he said a few weeks after he dispatched the police.

It is not known whether he now regrets his decision to send in the Swat team. One measure of its success is that there is no longer one parody feed ridiculing Ardis on Twitter – there are 15.

 

Ed Pilkington is the chief reporter for Guardian US. He is a former national and foreign editor of the paper, and author of Beyond the Mother Country.