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Colorado District Court Examines Responsibility in Issuing Search Warrants Following $425,000 Settlement for Illegal Computer Search

A $425,000 settlement was reached in December, 2011 in a federal civil rights action against a prosecutor who approved an application for an illegal search. It may be the first ruling of its type.

Thomas Mink, as a student at the University of Northern Colorado (UNC), published an internet newsletter, The Howling Pig (THP), a largely satirical posting relating to UNC issues. THP’s editor-in-chief was listed as “Mr. Junius Puke,” a loose parody on a UNC professor, Junius Peake. Professor Peake complained of criminal libel to the Greely, Colorado Police Department in November, 2003.

Detective Warren of the Greely PD authenticated ownership of the website and printed the website out, along with several editorials by “Junius Puke,” attached to them in an affidavit for search warrant, and submitted them, with the corresponding search warrant to Susan Knox, a Deputy District Attorney working for the 19th judicial district attorney’s office, Weld County, Colorado. Knox reviewed the documents and approved them for submission to a judge. Greely PD seized Mink’s computer in a subsequent search.

In his § 1983 complaint, Mink asserted that Knox, by signing off, read the THP website printouts that were attached to the affidavit for the search warrant and should have weighed them against her approval.

The case went back and forth between the district court of appeals several times; Knox’s defense eroded from absolute prosecutorial immunity to qualified immunity as both sides filed motions for summary judgment.

The argument surrounding the First Amendment issue revolved around whether the editorial in question asserted statements of fact attributed to Professor Peake, as opposed to satirical spoof which is afforded considerable latitude under the First Amendment.

The court noted that an objective reading of the editorials revealed content that could not be construed as serious and rational—not the type of content to which a college professor would put his name. It was satire.

The court granted Mr. Mink’s motion for summary judgment and denied Ms. Knox’s motion for summary judgment and held in favor of Mink, with damages to be determined at a subsequent hearing. The parties reached a settlement that paid Mink $25,000 and the Colorado ACLU $400,000 in attorney fees and costs.

“It may be the first written ruling that expressly holds a prosecutor legally responsible for her role in approving an application for a search warrant that resulted in an illegal search,” said Mark Silverstein, the ACLU of Colorado’s Legal Director in a statement. “This ruling and this substantial monetary settlement sends a forceful message that prosecutors cannot simply rubber-stamp a police officer’s request to invade the privacy of a person’s home.” See: Mink v. Knox, USDC, D-Colorado, Case No. 04-CV-00023.

Additional Source: Denver Post

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Related legal case

Mink v. Knox