Attorneys for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement say a judge should reject a request to return property seized from the home of fired state Department of Health analyst Rebekah Jones because another judge has authority over the matter.
Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper is scheduled Wednesday to hear arguments on a motion by Jones’ attorneys to force FDLE to return computer equipment and other property seized during a Dec. 7 search of her home.
Jones, who was fired last year from her Department of Health job, has drawn national attention because of her allegations that Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration has manipulated data about the COVID-19 pandemic.
But in a filing Monday, FDLE attorneys wrote that Circuit Judge Joshua Hawkes signed the search warrant and later received an inventory of property seized as part of the FDLE’s investigation into a message sent on a Department of Health computer system.
The FDLE’s attorneys argued in the filing that, under state law, Hawkes has jurisdiction to decide whether to approve a request to return Jones’ property.
“Public policy also requires this court (Cooper) to decline to exercise its concurrent jurisdiction,” the filing said. “To proceed otherwise invites, among other things, inconsistent results; lack of expediency in judicial proceedings; waste of judicial resources; and lack of finality in judicial proceedings. Moreover, if civil courts started haphazardly usurping jurisdiction over criminal proceedings, then anyone under criminal investigation or being criminally prosecuted could thwart, disrupt and undermine criminal investigations or proceedings by simply applying to a civil court for replevin (a legal process related to returning property) or return of the evidence being used against them.”
The filing also includes an inventory of property seized, including a Dell laptop, a Toshiba laptop, two phones, three thumb drives and a computer tower.
The FDLE conducted the search at Jones’ house after an investigation allegedly linked her home address to a Nov. 10 message sent on an internal Department of Health multi-user account.
“It’s time to speak up before another 17,000 people are dead. You know this is wrong. You don’t have to be part of this. Be a hero. Speak out before it’s too late,” the message from an unidentified sender said.
But Jones filed a civil lawsuit Dec. 20, naming as defendants FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen, Agent Noel Pratts and an unidentified agent listed as John Doe.
The lawsuit alleges that the search warrant used to enter her home “was obtained in bad faith and with no legitimate object or purpose.” It also alleges the agency violated Jones’ First Amendment and due-process rights and conducted an unlawful search and seizure.
Three days after the lawsuit was filed, Jones’ attorneys filed a motion seeking to force FDLE to return all property seized “and to erase or otherwise destroy any copies already made.” As in the underlying lawsuit, Jones’ attorneys contended in the motion that she was not responsible for the Nov. 10 message on the Department of Health account.
“The property at issue is plaintiff’s personal property, including audio-visual media protected by the First Amendment and plaintiff’s attorney/client privileged communications,” the motion said. “The property is not the fruit of any possible criminal activity. It is not being held as evidence of any crime. This is so because the crime alleged is not a crime at all and there is no probable cause linking plaintiff to the alleged activity.”
Republished with permission from the News Service of Florida.