Tuesday, June 19, 2012

What Would Jesus Drink Part II - The Angels Coming Home to Roost

Hardin, Texas is just a dot on the map, but it's growing at a pretty fast clip.  The population increase from the 2000 to the 2010 census was a spirited 8.5%.  It's now all the way up to 819.  Hardin is in Liberty County, which according to the county website is pretty close to paradise.
Liberty County is home to some of the kindest, friendliest, hardest working folks anywhere. Something is always happening here in Liberty County. Our proximity to Houston, lower cost of living, great schools, strong economy, and the world-class hospitality of communities like Cleveland, Liberty, and Dayton make Liberty County a wonderful place to raise a family or locate a business.
As they say, "Something is always happening [t]here."
A year ago I told this true story.
Police in Hardin, Texas got a tip.  Reports on just what the tip was conflict.  Dozens of dismembered bodies buried at a farmhouse? Children in danger at that farmhouse? Either way, they got a warrant.
Because when Jesus and 32 angels tell Angel about what's going on at the farmhouse.  The Times reports.
Equipped with a search warrant and cadaver-sniffing dogs, deputies from the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office converged on a home on a narrow country road near Hardin — about an hour outside Houston — in search of a macabre crime scene. The news of a mass grave in rural Texas set off a news media frenzy: throngs of reporters camped outside the home, two news helicopters circled above, and cable news stations flashed alerts that up to 30 bodies had been found.
Liberty County Sheriff's deputies, the FBI, DPS officers and the media converged on the town of Hardin looking for signs of a mass grave. A search at the home turned up nothing.
Because, of course, you have to check.
I mean, when someone calls with that sort of story, and offers a credible explanation for how she knows . . . .
Oh, you wondered about the credible explanation?
The caller, a woman who identifies herself as "Angel," spoke to CBS.
They up-front asked me how I got the information, and I am a reverend. I am a prophetess and I get my information from Jesus and the angels, and I told them that I had 32 angels with me and they were giving me the information and then it went from there.
I mean, who could doubt?
My broader theme then was the widespread but inaccurate belief that the requirement that police have a warrant based on probable cause before tearing up your home and destroying your life, the guts of the Fourth Amendment, was close to meaningless.
The beauty of a good story is that it has legs.  It can be a gift that, as they say, keeps on giving.
This morning, Scott Greenfield picked up on the latest news.
Via Courthouse News, Joe Bankson and Gena Charlton are suing the sheriff, the psychic and a bunch of news outlets who reported about them "after a self-proclaimed psychic told the sheriff that 25 to 30 dismembered bodies were buried in a mass grave at their home." Needless to say, this tip didn't pan out, much to the surprise of the psychic who calls herself "Angel."
The sheriff's office provided the plaintiffs' address to the news media and repeated the false statement, and it made nationwide and worldwide headlines, according to the complaint.
Bankson and Charlton claim the sheriff's office searched their home unreasonably and without probable cause, inviting the media along to watch the intrusive execution of the search warrant.
The couple claim the sheriff's office was "unreasonable in relying on an uncorroborated tip from a self-proclaimed psychic source" who has proven to be "unreliable and untrustworthy."
Me, I'm not a believer.  Sure, I lived in Texas, went to law school there, practiced law there, and have a mighty fine cowboy hat I wear occasionally.  Even so, I'd think it was unreasonable to rely on "an uncorroborated tip from a self-proclaimed psychic" who got her info from "Jesus and the angels" even without knowing that she had been proved "unreliable and untrustworthy." (Of course, despite the dozen years I lived on the Llano Estacado, I'm basically a Yankee.)
Anyway, let's take a moment to think about the lawsuit and in particular the defendants.  And let me make clear that I'm writing based on the description by Courthouse News which may or may not accurately reflect the complaint, which I haven't seen.
Sue the Sheriff for violating the Fourth Amendment?  You bet your booties.  Sure, it's Texas and sure the Fourth Amendment doesn't really mean much these days.  But tips from Jesus and the angels?  Of course, there's that whole qualified immunity thing and whether a reasonable Texas sheriff might believe it however tiny the probability.  Still, I say go for it.
Sue Angel? Be still my heart.  
The first question was whether to charge her with a criminal violation for filing a false report.  Apparently that was going to depend on whether the authorities could confirm that she was actually a psychic?  (Really, you can't make this shit up.)
Rucks Russell at KHOU 11 news quoted Captain Rex Evans of the Liberty County Sheriff's Department on the subject..
However, that has not been confirmed yet, whether she’s a psychic or not.
Because if she were really a psychic there wouldn't be a case?  But if she was a false psychic there would?  And how would they decide?  Shortly after I moved to Texas, another Yankee - one who'd lived there for several years - told me that the important thing wasn't where you lived but when.  In Lubbock, he said, we were living in the 1700s.  Liberty County?
But Angel?  Sue her?  Lovely idea, but for what, exactly.  Defamation, I suppose, since she accused them of horrible crimes.  Except, more precisely, she said there was evidence of horrible crimes on their property.  In a police report.  It was nonsense, of course, but defamatory?  
Still, that's all beside the point here.  Because there's a real and serious problem with the lawsuit. Here's the first paragraph of that Courthouse News story.
A Texas couple claim in court that they were defamed by major media companies, including The New York Times, Belo Corp., CNN, Thomson Reuters and ABC News, after a self-proclaimed psychic told the sherriff that 25 to 30 dismembered bodies were buried in a mass grave at their home.
See, what the media did was report that there was this wasteful search based on a tip by a psychic that didn't pan out.  Here's a bit from that Times story I linked to above.
But in the end, there was no grave, there were no bodies and there was no sign that any crime had been committed — except, perhaps, the misleading call that created the spectacle in the first place. 
Look, when the Sheriff invites the media along (like Greenfield I have serious reservations about that, but it's beside the point here) on a search for dozens of dismembered bodies, they're gonna report it.  Because it's legitimately newsworthy, even if only in a man-bites-dog sort of way.  And because that's what they do.
But they also report that it was hogwash.
And, speaking both as a lawyer and from the experience of being wrongfully sued for defamation, it ain't defamation. 
Even though some folks will miss the follow-up.  Or believe only the accusations.  Guilty regardless of the evidence.
No, the villains here aren't the media.  And may not be the crackpot Angel, whoever she may be.  The villain is the law that allowed a search warrant based on her tip which she based on the word of Jesus and the angels.  And the forces of authority who turned it into a circus.

1 comment:

  1. The villain is the law that allowed a search warrant based on her tip which she based on the word of Jesus and the angels. And the forces of authority who turned it into a circus.

    I wouldn't vilify the law over that. The law is only ink on paper, while the fools that wrote it and voted it into existence should be carefully considered before their gold fillings are extracted without benefit of Novocaine or a licensed dentist. Arguably, who would ever think that a sheriff would be so completely stupid as to formally request and execute a search warrant based on the words of a five dollar tea leaf reader? And what, Lord help us all, judge in his right mind would ever in a million years sign off on a warrant like that?

    And just how, by the way, did commercial media report this little gem? Was it: Inbred sheriff and his judicial brother by his mother's sister and his own father serves search warrant on a completely innocent elderly couple because of the testimony of a snake handling psychic? Or was it: Bodies reported but not found - sheriff has confidential list of 'persons of interest' and other leads... more at four.

    Screw 'em. Sue them too and I hope they lose.

    And by the way, what is the Texas Attorney General doing about this one? Because this is just the kind of thing that should be getting a ton of official attention from some highly placed jerk off with a truck load of fertilizer looking for a fan.