Leon County Judge Puts Off Decision On Fired Analyst’s Property
A circuit judge said Wednesday he can’t decide whether Florida law enforcement officials should be forced to return equipment seized from former Department of Health COVID-19 data analyst Rebekah Jones until he learns whether authorities intend to charge her with a crime.
Jones, who was fired from the health department position last year, garnered national attention after alleging that Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration was manipulating data about COVID-19 cases and deaths. The spotlight on Jones was heightened after she posted a video of armed agents executing a search warrant at her home on Dec. 7.
After agents seized her computers, cell phones and other equipment, Jones’ attorneys filed a civil lawsuit against the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and two agents involved in the search.
During a hearing Wednesday, Richard Johnson, a lawyer for Jones, accused state officials of punishing Jones --- who created her own COVID-19 “dashboard” after leaving the health department --- by seizing the devices she needs to continue her work.
“The woman’s got to make a living, and this is the means of her support. It’s her First Amendment right to use that stuff to put out the information,” Johnson told Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper, saying one of Jones’ computers seized on Dec. 7 was valued at $12,000.
Florida officials will keep her equipment “in limbo … until the property becomes obsolete,” Johnson argued.
“It’s punishment for free speech. That’s all that it is,” he said.
The FDLE obtained the search warrant for Jones’ Tallahassee home, where she lived with her husband and children, after an investigation allegedly linked her address to a Nov. 10 message sent on an internal Department of Health multi-user account.
“It’s time to speak up before another 17,000 people are dead. You know this is wrong. You don’t have to be part of this. Be a hero. Speak out before it’s too late,” the message from an unidentified sender said.
Three days after filing the civil lawsuit on Dec. 20 against FDLE Commissioner RicK Swearingen, Agent Noel Pratts and an unidentified agent listed as John Doe, Jones’ lawyers filed a motion asking Cooper to order the state agency to give back her equipment.
But Cooper said Wednesday he can’t decide the issue until he learns whether FDLE or 2nd Judicial Circuit State Attorney Jack Campbell intend to pursue criminal charges against Jones.
“I’m deferring ruling on this motion pending finding out whether there is any intent, whether there’s been a decision made to either, one, ‘We’re not filing criminal charges,’ or two, ‘We might be or we are going to,’” the judge said.
Cooper also rejected arguments by FDLE’s lawyers that he isn’t the proper judge to handle the case.
In a court filing Monday, FDLE attorneys wrote that Circuit Judge Joshua Hawkes has jurisdiction because Hawkes signed the search warrant and later received an inventory of property seized as part of the FDLE’s investigation.
But Cooper said Wednesday that, based on previous case law, Jones’ complaint wasn’t required to go to Hawkes.
“I’m a civil circuit judge in Leon County, and I drew the straw from the clerk as to who got this case. Therefore, as I read these cases, I have jurisdiction,” he said.
An affidavit used to obtain the search warrant alleges that Jones violated a state law that prohibits unauthorized people from “willfully, knowingly and without authorization” gaining access to computer systems.
Jones, who now lives in Washington, D.C., maintains that she didn’t send the message on the Department of Health account. And Johnson argued Wednesday that, even if she did, it wouldn’t be a crime because the user name and password for the messaging system was publicly available.
Cooper, however, appeared skeptical.
“If you left your car in your driveway, with the doors unlocked and the keys in the ignition, would it still be illegal for somebody to come in without your permission?” he asked Johnson, who said this situation was different.
“If I’m saying, hey my keys are in the ignition but I’m not saying please use it, it’s enough to say the keys are in the ignition. Why would I be giving that information?” Johnson said. “If I tell you the keys are under the mat, am I just telling you so you’ll know, or am I telling you that so you can reach under the mat to use the key.”
But Cooper called Johnson’s argument problematic, at least for now.
“I just don’t think that’s an issue that I can decide at a motion stage. I think that at best is a jury argument,” the judge said.
Jones’ lawsuit alleges that the search warrant used to enter her home “was obtained in bad faith and with no legitimate object or purpose.” It also alleges the FDLE violated Jones’ First Amendment and due-process rights and conducted an unlawful search and seizure.
But Cooper on Wednesday said Hawkes was correct to sign the search warrant because “it states sufficient probable cause to investigate a potential violation of the statute.”
The judge told Johnson and Craig Knox, an attorney with the Andrews, Crabtree, Knox & Longfellow firm who represents FDLE, to consult with Campbell, the state attorney, and find out whether he intends to charge Jones with any crimes.
“I just don’t think the state can keep evidence when it has already made a decision it’s not going to use it. If it’s investigating … they have a reasonable amount of time to make that decision,” Cooper said.