Police vs. Bookstore in Privacy Rights Case

DENVER - 12/16/2000
By Justin Rickard
Privacy Foundation researcher

When an individual’s right to privacy collides with the pursuit of law enforcement, what should yield?

That question was the centerpiece of a unique panel at the Denver Press Club on Dec. 12, where discussion focused on a controversial case involving a suspected criminal’s alleged purchase of drug cookbooks from the Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver. The case has generated national attention, and is expected to land in the Colorado Supreme Court sometime next year – and perhaps even the U.S. Supreme Court.

The facts of the case are as follows. In March, police in suburban Denver busted a methamphetamine lab in a mobile home. Within the mobile home, the police found two books: The Construction and Operation of Clandestine Drug Laboratories by "Jack B. Nimble" and Advanced Techniques of Clandestine Psychedelic and Amphetamine Manufacture by "Uncle Fester." Outside in the trash the cops found a shipping envelope containing an invoice number from the Tattered Cover.

Believing that the invoice number was connected to the purchase of the books, and therefore would lead to a key suspect among several people who inhabited the mobile home, the police were granted a search warrant to track down the invoice at the Tattered Cover. Bookstore owner Joyce Meskis refused to cooperate, saying that protecting her customers’ privacy is paramount.

Speaking to an audience of about 40 people, the panel at the press club included Meskis, her attorney, law enforcement personnel involved in the case, a local judge, and a representative of the Privacy Foundation, which co-sponsored the event spearheaded by the Colorado Bar Association.

Meskis told the gathering that that she refused to release the invoice records to police because it would set a disturbing precedent that she felt would violate First Amendment rights. Police countered that the invoice was a key piece of evidence to track down the purchaser of the drug cookbooks, and would help them pursue their criminal case.

Most on the panel agreed that there need to be crystal clear guidelines for the police to obtain search warrants, particularly when the evidence sought relates to reading material. A member of the audience said she supported the right of bookstores and vendors on the Internet to sell and distribute provocative materials, without fear of action by law enforcement.

- Justin Rickard researched this article for the Privacy Foundation.

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