TALLAHASSEE — Former state data analyst Rebekah Jones continued her aggressive defense against the allegations lodged against her by the DeSantis administration and late Sunday filed a complaint in Leon County Circuit Court alleging that state police who raided her home on Dec. 7 violated her constitutional rights of free speech and due process.
Jones, who has appeared on numerous cable news shows defending herself, alleges in the new complaint that the basis of the search warrant used by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement was “a sham” designed to punish her for speaking out against Gov. Ron DeSantis for “refusing to falsify statistics on a ‘dashboard’ she had created for (the Department of Health).” In May, DOH fired Jones for insubordination and she subsequently filed a whistle-blower complaint against the state.
The complaint, filed by Tallahassee lawyer Richard E. Johnson, Longwood lawyer Lawrence Walters and Atlanta lawyer Lisa C. Lambert, asks the court to order that her computers and other electronic equipment seized by the state be immediately returned and that legal fees and punitive damages of more than $30,000 be awarded.
Agents searched Jones’ home and seized her computers and other electronic equipment because the state said it had probable cause to believe she was behind an anonymous message sent to her former colleagues at DOH urging them to “be a hero” and speak out about the coronavirus. Since the search warrant, there have been no charges filed and Jones has revived her GoFundMe accounts, which have now raised more than $500,000.
The complaint alleges the state violated Jones’ 14th Amendment right to due process by issuing an “overly broad” search warrant that lacks probable cause. It raises questions about whether FDLE agents ruled out the possibility that Jones’ address had been “spoofed,” making it appear her IP address was the source of the message, and whether they instead were attempting to get access to “privileged written communications with her attorneys, all her protected work product materials from her DOH whistleblower case, and all her confidential sources from her work on her legal case and from her journalistic endeavors.”
The complaint also notes that a report from a technology news site, Ars Technica, said that readers of Reddit discovered that the Department of Health’s private messaging system that Jones allegedly accessed had published the email address and password and posted it in at least seven pdf files that were widely available on the Internet to anyone who had the address.
“FDLE, seeking to ingratiate itself to DeSantis, sought to silence Plaintiff’s online speech by confiscating her computer and to discover her confidential sources and other information by seizing her cell phone,’' the complaint alleges. “That was the motive for obtaining the search warrant, not the ridiculous notion that FDLE believed Plaintiff sent the message at issue and that it would have been illegal so to do.”
Since Jones has spoken out, DeSants has vigorously defended the state’s handling of the search warrant. Rick Swearingen, FDLE commissioner who is named in the complaint, has also been aggressive in his defense of his agents’ actions. He denied he had any conversations with DeSantis about the investigation.
“As I have said before, I am proud of the professionalism shown by our FDLE agents as they served a legal search warrant on the residence of Rebekah Jones,’' he said in a statement Monday. “Our criminal investigation continues, and while I have not seen this lawsuit, I believe the facts will come out in court.”
He told reporters last week that he believed officers considered Jones violent, based on clashes she had with a previous employer in Louisiana and a stalking claim from a former boyfriend.
“I have no personal ill will against Miss Jones, to be honest with you, before seven to 10 days ago,’' he said. “Other than seeing her name in the headlines, I had no idea who she was.”
But, he said, Jones “had a platform to make numerous false statements about the conduct of FDLE agents,’' and his agents needed to be defended.
Swearingen said it was “ridiculous” and “offensive” for Jones to compare her treatment to that of the Gestapo, the secret police of Nazi Germany who, he said, “dragged innocent men, women and children out of their homes and murdered them.”
Last week, Swearingen released the body camera video from the Tallahassee police officer who accompanied the FDLE agents that showed them waiting outside Jones’ Tallahassee home but did not show their entry into their home with guns pointed.
Jones alleges that the officers pointed a gun at the ceiling when her children were upstairs and accused them of “pointing a gun at my children.” The complaint alleges that when she “appeared at a window adjacent to the door within that time and an agent pointed a gun within inches of her face through the window. "
Swearingen denied guns were pointed at any individuals and said the agents “had been trying to knock politely on her door, rang her doorbell and calling her numerous times to handle this in a manner that was respectful of the fact that there were children here.”
The complaint, which also names the FDLE agent in charge, Noel Pratts, and says he led as many as eight armed officers in the raid. It says another officer, called John Doe, “committed a battery on Plaintiff by repeatedly running his hands up and down her ribs and by gripping and holding her sides.”
The complaint also says, “DeSantis has been openly furious about Plaintiff’s work because it exposes the ongoing falsification, suppression, and misleading [information] that are salient features of the State’s data reporting about COVID-19. He has not missed any opportunity to heap vilification and obloquy on Plaintiff in the public media.”
The complaint also notes the extent to which FDLE released personal information about Jones, noting that the unredacted body camera footage “contains numerous mentions of Plaintiff’s home address, her phone number, her license tag, and the 11-year-old child’s age, grade,and school. Defendant Swearingen also released an unredacted copy of Pratt’s affidavit in support of the search warrant, again containing Plaintiff’s full address and phone number as well as a photo of her home. He also released an agent’s call log from the scene.”
It said that as a result of this treatment, Jones had to change her phone number, hire an armed guard to protect her home, and “she has been placed in such fear for her and her family’s safety that she is pulling up roots and moving out of state.”
Whatever the motive, legal experts who spoke to the Times/Herald say the aggressive search by state police on Jones’ home is likely to have a chilling effect on others.