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Bookstore’s records ruled safe from search warrant

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         COLORADO         Privacy         Apr 10, 2002    

Bookstore’s records ruled safe from search warrant

  • A Colorado city police department tried to serve a search warrant on a bookstore for a customer’s book-purchase records, but the state Supreme Court ruled that the action would have “substantial chilling effects” on free-speech rights.

A Colorado bookstore does not have to divulge its customer purchase records to city police who wanted to know who bought two books on making illegal drugs, the state Supreme Court ruled on April 8.

Forcing the bookstore to comply with a search warrant for the records violates the state Constitution and the First Amendment to the federal Constitution, unless police can show a compelling interest in the information, the court ruled.

Police in Thornton, Colo., did not have a sufficiently compelling need for the records when they tried to serve a search warrant on Tattered Cover, Inc., an independent bookstore, the court found.

“Before law enforcement officials are permitted to take actions that are likely to chill people’s willingness to read a full panoply of books and be exposed to diverse ideas, law enforcement officials must make a heightened showing of their need for the innocent bookstore’s customer purchase records,” the opinion said.

Bookstores also are entitled to a hearing before police execute a search warrant seeking customers’ book-purchasing records, the court ruled. At the hearing, a court can consider whether police can get the information from other reasonable means and whether the search warrant is overly broad.

A court also must balance the law enforcement officials’ need for the information against the harm caused to constitutional interests. The harm likely would be minimal if the need for the records is unrelated to the contents of the book, the court said.

Thornton police wanted records from the Tattered Cover to identify the operator of a methamphetamine lab in a trailer home where two books — “Advanced Techniques of Clandestine Psychedelic and Amphetamine Manufacture” and “The Construction and Operation of Clandestine Drug Laboratories” — were found in the master bedroom. An empty mailing envelope from the Tattered Cover addressed to one of the trailer’s occupants was found in the garbage. Police hoped to identify the drug maker by linking the empty envelope to the books.

The state Supreme Court found that the police had other ways to discover who operated the meth lab. Police could have analyzed fingerprints found on glassware in the lab and could have interviewed witnesses.

The court also found that the police department’s reasons for wanting the bookstore’s records were directly tied to the content of the books.

“This is precisely the reason that this search warrant is likely to have chilling effects on the willingness of the general public to purchase books about controversial topics,” the opinion said.

(Tattered Cover, Inc. v. City of Thornton; Bookstore counsel: Daniel N. Recht and Richard K. Kornfeld, Denver) MD

© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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