Ritter and the reading records

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Ritter and the reading records

by Ari Armstrong

The following article originally appeared at Boulder Weekly on September 28, 2006.

Bill Ritter, the Denver Democrat and former prosecutor running for governor, is riding high in the polls. But I can't figure out why any self-respecting Democrat would even consider voting for him.

Did Democrats happen to forget that Ritter opposes abortion in most cases? The Democrats have left as the only pro-choice candidate in the race Libertarian Dawn Winkler.

But it gets worse from a civil-libertarian standpoint -- much worse. Remember all the wailing and moaning about George Bush and his evil stooge John Ashcroft, who wanted to look through library records? Well, Ritter did them one better. But apparently today's Democrats have shorter memories than Ronald Reagan did during "Contragate."

So let's review, drawing from an April 8, 2002, ruling by the Colorado Supreme Court available at www.cobar.org/opinions/opinion.cfm?OpinionID=560.

On March 13, 2000, a DEA agent "searched through some garbage from [a Thornton] trailer home. In doing so, he found evidence of drug operations. Additionally, he discovered a mailing envelope from the Tattered Cover addressed" to a suspect. The next day, police obtained and executed a search warrant.

Soon after, officers "served the Tattered Cover with a DEA administrative subpoena. This subpoena demanded the title of the books corresponding to the order and invoice numbers of the mailer, as well as information about all other book orders ever placed by" the suspect.

"Joyce Meskis, the owner of the Tattered Cover, instructed her attorney to tell the police that the bookstore would not comply with the subpoena, based on its concerns for its customers' privacy and First Amendment rights."

An officer "approached prosecutors from the Adams County District Attorney's office to get a search warrant for the Tattered Cover. Several prosecutors at the Adams County DA's office refused to sign off on the warrant, voicing concerns about its scope and subject matter," so the officer got "approval for his search warrant from the Denver DA's office."

Officers tried to execute the warrant on April 5, 2000, but Meskis's attorney persuaded the DA's office to tell "the police officers not to execute the warrant until the Tattered Cover could litigate its validity."

After losing its first court battle, the Tattered Cover prevailed in 2002 in the state's Supreme Court.

In his April 14, 2002, column for The Denver Post, Ed Quillen noted that police could have made their case by gathering all sorts of other evidence. Quillen argues, "Their true purpose was not to gather evidence to convict someone of a crime. Instead, they were trying to harass a bookstore that sold material they didn't approve of."

Quillen continued: "If Bill Ritter, the Denver DA, has any sense of shame, this fact has escaped public notice, so his office requested and got a search warrant from a judge who should have known better."

In an October 30, 2000, article for the Rocky Mountain News, Joyce Meskis, owner of the Tattered Cover, wrote that she "saw the search warrant as a challenge to the First Amendment rights of our customers, who don't expect to have their purchases reviewed by the authorities." She added, "I can tell you that it is pretty scary when the police show up."

Then on Nov. 2, 2000, the Tattered Cover issued a release that stated, "The Tattered Cover Book Store announced today that it will appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court a court order requiring it to turn over to police information about a customer's book purchases... On [Oct. 30], the [Rocky Mountain News] published an editorial that expressed the hope that Tattered Cover would appeal... [the] decision. The same day, a group called Friends of the First Amendment demonstrated outside the office of the Denver District Attorney to protest the DA's decision to authorize the warrant to search the Tattered Cover."

I'm proud to have participated in that protest. (I don't know Meskis's current opinion of Ritter.) I printed up signs that read, "Protect Privacy, Protect the First Amendment."

I checked in with Boulder resident Ralph Shnelvar, who also attended the protest. He said, "It's obvious that the American populace has zero memory. If people knew who these people are and what they've done in the past, then they would not have nominated Ritter. As far as I'm concerned, Ritter should not be the chief executive officer of Colorado. He shows a complete lack of understanding of what it means to live in a free society."

On Nov. 6, 2000, The Denver Post editorialized: "In a free society, people not only must be able to speak and write but also hear and read without fear of government repression. Yet Colorado faces a disturbing case that could let cops snoop into books a citizen purchased... Disturbingly, Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter is carrying water for the drug task force on this issue, because his Adams County counterpart balked once the First Amendment implications became clear."

On April 9, 2002, left-leaning columnists Diane Carman (Denver Post) and Mike Littwin (Rocky Mountain News) also wrote in favor of the Tattered Cover.

As Meskis said in 2000, "Reading a book is not a crime." But that didn't stop Ritter from sending the police to Meskis's bookstore. Will it stop voters from sending Ritter to the governor's mansion?

The Colorado Freedom Report--www.FreeColorado.com