Originally Published in The Washington Post
Justin Jouvenal - October 16, 2020
But the search warrant authorities filed went beyond seeking just that visual evidence. Authorities asked for virtually all of the Facebook page’s content over a five-day period, a move the group says would give law enforcement access to sensitive information about undocumented immigrants and their families, confidential health reports, and complaints by name about specific law enforcement and immigration officers.
Free Them All VA says it worries the information could be forwarded to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and result in deportations or retaliation against immigrants in custody.
This week, Public Citizen, a watchdog group, filed a motion to quash the search warrant on behalf of Free Them All VA, arguing that it violated members’ constitutional rights against unreasonable search, and that the overly broad warrant could chill their free speech rights.
Paul Alan Levy, an attorney for Public Citizen, said it’s unclear if Leesburg police didn’t think about how broad their search warrant was or if the move was intentional, but either way it set a bad precedent.
“This is so low on the scale of what you think enforcement priorities ought to be in this day and age that almost any search warrant that was issued, you would wonder what’s going on,” Levy said. “If they were just after the video of the demonstration, I wouldn’t have objected. But they are plainly after more. . . . It’s excessive.”
“All Virginia search warrants, inclusive of the one that you are inquiring about, are reviewed and signed off by either a Magistrate or a Judge based on legal criteria,” the statement read. “The language contained in the search warrant and affidavit is consistent with the execution of social media site search warrants. This remains an active investigation.”
Free Them All VA, which is a coalition of 14 groups, focuses on issues facing immigrants in detention. It organized the Sept. 11 protest outside Herring’s home to highlight the plight of detainees at the Farmville detention center, which over the summer had what was then the nation’s worst coronavirus outbreak at an immigration facility.
To date, nearly 340 immigrants have had the coronavirus at Farmville and one has died, according to ICE statistics.
The protest was organized the same day The Post reported the massive outbreak began after the Trump administration flew detainees to Virginia to facilitate the rapid deployment of federal agents to help quell protests in D.C. over the killing of George Floyd. The agents were aboard the same flights.
During the protest on the evening of Sept. 11, someone wrote on a public sidewalk “Free Them All” in blue letters in Spanish and English, police said. The demonstration was live-streamed on the Free Them All VA Facebook page.
A Leesburg detective wrote in the search warrant that the paint was permanent and had to be professionally removed, costing less than $1,000. In Virginia, destruction of property that amounts to less than $1,000 is a misdemeanor.
The search warrant filed Sept. 15 in Loudoun County Circuit Court sought information about the page’s subscribers, including phone numbers, addresses, credit card information and IP addresses, as well as all posted content, messages, chats, photos, videos and deleted materials from the Facebook page from Sept. 10 to Sept. 15.
Free Them All VA said the search warrant was problematic because it gets sensitive questions and reports from undocumented immigrants sent to the Facebook page, including from the families of those in custody.
Loudoun County Commonwealth’s Attorney Buta Biberaj would issue any response to the motion to quash, Levy said. Biberaj wrote in an email Thursday she has not yet reviewed the motion, so couldn’t comment on it immediately.
Free Them All Va said in a statement the search warrant was a “clear abuse of power.”
“Giving the police unlimited access to information about members of our community would encourage further violations of the 4th amendment, mapping and targeting of Black, Indigenous and People of Color community members, and strengthen suppression tactics used to shift focus from the violence perpetrated by the state on our community,” the statement read.
Free Them All VA staged the protest at Herring’s home because it wants him to order inspections of the Farmville facility. Herring’s office said in a statement that he was troubled by the Trump administration’s immigration policy. Herring is not involved in the destruction of property investigation.
“AG Herring believes everyone has the right to demonstrate, protest, and make their voices heard and it’s important to do so now more than ever,” the statement read. “From our perspective, the matter was resolved that night as soon as they finished their event.”