(WIRED) -- An anarchist social worker raided by the feds wants his computers, manuscripts and pick axes back. He argues that authorities violated the U.S. Constitution and the rights of his mentally ill clients while searching for evidence that he broke an anti-rioting law on Twitter.
In a guns-drawn raid on October 1, FBI agents and police seized boxes of dubious "evidence" from the Queens, New York, home of Elliott Madison. A U.S. District Judge in Brooklyn has set a Monday deadline to rule on the legality of the search, and in the meantime has ordered the government to refrain from examining the material taken in the 6 a.m. search.
Madison, who counsels more than 100 severely mentally ill patients in New York, seems to have first drawn attention from the authorities at September's G-20 gathering of world leaders in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There he was arrested on September 24 at a motel room for allegedly listening to a police scanner and relaying information on Twitter to help protesters avoid heavily-armed cops -- an activity the State Department lauded when it happened in Iran.
A week later, the Joint Terrorism Task Force, armed with a search warrant and backed by a federal grand jury investigation, raided Madison's house, which he shares with his wife of 13 years and several roommates. The squad seized his computers, camera memory cards, books, air-filtration masks, bumper stickers and political posters -- all purportedly evidence that the 41-year old social worker had broken a federal anti-rioting law that carries up to five years in prison.
But a closer look at the court documents leaves the unmistakable impression that Elliott Madison is yet another casualty of the government's nasty, post-9/11 habit of considering political dissidents as threats to national security.
Madison, his wife and his lawyer Martin Stolar say the search violates the Constitution's protections against general searches and prosecution for political speech. The police also seized mobile phones, citizen emergency kits, manuscripts, posters and even the couple's marriage license.
In a motion to throw out the search, Stolar called the search unconstitutional:
In this day and age, federally authorized agents entered the private home of a writer and urban planner and seized their books and writings. The warrant's vagueness and lack of specificity encouraged the agents to use their own discretion and their own views of the political universe to seize, or not to seize, items which they thought were evidence of a violation of the federal anti-riot statute. The law and the Constitution do not allow this. If there really is a grand jury investigation with possible future prosecution under [a federal anti-rioting law], the use of this statute as applied to demonstrations, demonstrators, and their supporters has profound 1st Amendment implications.
If Madison were an Iranian using Twitter to coordinate government protests, he'd likely be considered a hero in the West. Instead, the self-identified anarchist -- who volunteered in Louisiana after Katrina -- is now facing up to five years in prison for each count a grand jury cares to indict him on.
Oddly, Madison was in jail during the most dramatic of the G-20 confrontations.
The day after his arrest by Philadelphia State police on September 24, hundreds of police officers chased protesters around the city, using sonic weapons, pepper spray, batons, projectile weapons and tear gas, and arrested a reporter and bystanders. Some self-styled anarchists broke windows of chain stores and pushed a dumpster towards a phalanx of cops in riot gear.
The connection between the federal and state investigation remains unclear, though the feds say they will turn evidence over to the state, if any is found.
The affidavits justifying the raid remains under seal, but court documents reveal a grand jury is investigating whether Madison, and possibly his wife, violated 18 U.S.C. §2101, the federal anti-rioting law.
That obscure law was famously used to prosecute the Chicago 7 after the 1968 Democratic Convention's police riot. Five of the so-called Yippies were initially found guilty of of inciting a riot, though the convictions were eventually thrown out.
Madison and his wife both volunteered as paralegals for the People's Law Collective, their lawyer Martin Stolar said, and he'd worked with them before defending protesters.
In fact, he suggests that work might have sparked this entire incident.
"If you do your job effectively, then you draw the government's attentions," Stolar said.
Madison also belongs to the "Curious George Brigade," which published a book called Anarchy in the Age of Dinosaurs. The group was at work on a follow-up, until 50 copies of the first book and the electronic manuscript of the second were confiscated in the raid. On Monday, Madison described the book in an affidavit to the court as a book of "political theory and practice."
The published book seems sympathetic to the tactic of confronting police and destroying property of companies considered harmful, usually -- though not always -- multinational companies. Writing such a book is not a crime, though, and many of the other books cited by the police as evidence justifying the search after the fact can be bought on Amazon.com.
Madison, who has no prior convictions, works as a counselor at a mental health facility. He says some of the records seized by the government include confidential information that should be covered by a shield law protecting mental health records. The U.S. Attorney's office disputes that contention, saying the shield doesn't apply since Madison isn't a registered social worker.
Moreover, the government says, Madison's house was chock full of incriminating materials, including gas masks, pickaxes and air-filtration masks.
But Madison says that he'd become a believer in civil defense after the 2003 blackouts in New York and that the seized pickaxes are specialty, anti-sparking devices to be used in emergencies to shut off water mains. In fact, Madison and his wife told the court they'd made a YouTube video about what to put in a rescue pack. A review of the video by Threat Level confirms the pickaxe in the video matches the one seized by police.
The government countered that his reading material is also very suspicious. "As an initial matter, the government notes that a publication entitled 'Manifesto of Rioting' was seized from the Weisses' bedroom," the U.S. Attorney's office told the court last week.
Some of the other evidence the feds seized that shows he promotes riots? Steampunk magazine, for one. Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVDs. Anarchist political-theory books. A needlepoint depiction of Lenin that belonged to Madison's wife's grandmother. (Not surprisingly, the police don't seem to grasp the irony of an anarchist owning a Lenin bust in any form, given the hatred between the two ideologies since the Spanish Civil War, when the Communists turned on the anarchists and murdered their ostensible allies.)
His books on poison looks pretty incriminating, too. But his lawyer wonders why the police seized The Poisons and Antidotes Sourcebook and left the book Deadly Doses: A Writer's Guide to Poisons, both of which he says Elliot Madison uses for his fiction writing.
The feds also found caltrops -- four-pronged metal defensive weapons that always land with a pointy side up, used to give flat tires or hobble horses. Neither Madison nor his attorney has mentioned them in their filings. They are not illegal to own.
When the feds also found nine packages of fireworks at the rear of a closet, a JTTF agent took him downtown to book him for the infraction -- a ticketable offense. The bomb squad took care of the fireworks, which one supposes must have been impervious to dousing by a regular police officer.
Federal agents also seized camera memory disks, Madison's journals, computers and hard drives. These contained his fiction manuscripts, his wife's urban planning work and other writings. The police also confiscated a housemate's laptop that belonged to the Labor Department.
How did all of this get taken? Doesn't a search warrant have to specify what exactly is to be seized?
According to the U.S. Attorney's office, the warrant was legitimate. Signed by Judge Honorable Viktor V. Pohorelsky on September 26, it authorized the government to seize:
Computers, hard-drives, floppy discs and other media used to store computer-accessible information, cellular phones, personal digital assistants, electronic storage devices and related peripherals, black masks and clothing, maps, correspondence and other documents, financial records, notes, ledgers, receipts, papers, photographs, telephone and address books, identification documents, indicia of residency and other documents and records that constitute evidence of the commission of rioting crimes or that are designed or intended as a means of violating the federal rioting laws, including any of the above items that are maintained within other closed or locked containers, including safes and other containers that may be further secured by key locks (or combination locks) of various kinds.
The list of what was taken stretches pages.
The Madisons' lawyers are trying to overturn the search on the grounds that the warrant wasn't specific enough to pass constitutional muster. They also argue the feds have no business collecting the names of people Elliot communicated with, and that records from the People's Law Collective, as well as his work notes, are protected under confidentiality rules.
But the U.S. Attorney's Office defended the search in court, arguing that the broad search was just like those used in drug warrants, which were increasingly broadened over the last quarter century's ill-fated War on Drugs.
The affidavits that supported the search warrant are under court seal, because the grand jury investigation is "complex and multi-state," according to the prosecution.
The federal anti-rioting statute is serious business, and is seemingly easy to violate. For instance, it is a felony to "organize, promote, encourage, participate in, or carry on a riot; or [...] to aid or abet any person in inciting or participating in [...] a riot." By that token, simply telling a person fleeing cops with batons which way to run makes you a felon.
One wonders how the Southern Christian Leadership Council and Martin Luther King, Jr. would have fared under that law, when he was in a Birmingham jail, writing letters urging people to support the direct-action program of sit-ins and marches. Those protesters were later attacked by police using dogs and fire hoses on the orders of Birmingham Sheriff Bull Connor.
A spokesman for the New York U.S. Attorney's office, Bob Nardoza, declined to comment on the matter, citing rules forbidding officials to speak about grand jury investigations.
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