Judge rules Sarasota Police wrongly seized entirety of Christian Ziegler’s cellphone
Christian and Bridget Ziegler.

That likely means contents of the phone won't be released to media or other public parties.

A Sarasota Judge has ruled that Sarasota police wrongly downloaded the entirety of Christian Ziegler’s cellphone during a rape investigation. That likely means the contents of the phone won’t be released publicly.

Police seized the phone after a Sarasota woman accused Ziegler of rape, though police ultimately brought no charges against him. That resulted in the release of embarrassing information about the sex life of the then-Republican Party of Florida Chair and his wife, Sarasota School Board member Bridget Ziegler.

The couple sued police and the State Attorney’s Office to prevent the entire contents of his phone from becoming public record. Circuit Judge Hunter Carroll ruled in the Zieglers’ favor.

“Mr. Ziegler has the constitutional right to recover exclusive control over his personal property seized (involuntarily) through unconstitutional warrants,” Carroll wrote.

“His property is not transformed into public record because it was not ‘made or received pursuant to law’ and is outside the ‘official business’ of law enforcement. Because Mr. Ziegler’s personal property is not public record, there is no legal impediment to restoring exclusive possession of Mr. Ziegler’s property to Mr. Ziegler.”

Christian Ziegler and his attorney praised the decision as a victory for all individuals constitutional rights.

“This victory is not just for us, but for everyone who values their privacy and constitutional rights,” Christian Ziegler said. “We are grateful to the court for recognizing the overreach in this case and for protecting our personal information from being unjustly exposed.”

In a hearing, police investigators testified it was standard practice to down the entire contents of criminal subjects’ phones. Christian Ziegler’s phone was the largest phone ever downloaded by Sarasota Police.

An attorney for Christian Ziegler had volunteered the most relevant information for the investigation, a video of a sexual encounter with the woman. Police said that video showed the encounter in question was “likely consensual.”

Police obtained text messages on the phone verifying that the woman had arranged what she believed was a threesome with Christian and Bridget Ziegler. In it, Christian Ziegler told the woman his wife would not be there. The woman said he should no longer come over, but he did anyway.

But video both from Christian Ziegler’s phone and from security surveillance footage contradicted portions of her account.

The investigation drew national and local media attention. Christian Ziegler is a former Sarasota County Commissioner and Bridget Ziegler co-founded the socially conservative Moms for Liberty. But Carroll said that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a right to privacy.

“Just because the Zieglers may be high profile figures in our community does not mean they have surrendered their constitutional rights,” Carroll wrote.

“If the contents of an unconstitutional search and seizure allowed by a warrant became a public record simply by virtue of the government’s possession of that material, the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments’ protections would be functionally nullified. And the entire contents of every cellphone searched and seized based on a warrant issued by a state judge in Florida would also be a public record. The Court understands the particular interest in this case: the intersection of the Zieglers’ public profile and the nature of the allegations virtually guarantees interest. Despite the intense public interest, the rule of law must apply equally to all.”

Media outlets had engaged in the case hoping to gain access to many materials on the phone. But Carroll suggested that if the executive editor of a high-profile publication were accused of a crime, the outlet would likely object to police seizing communications that could identify sources who had nothing to do with the investigation.

Testimony indicated police obtained more than 250,000 photographs, 30,000 videos and 12,000 text messages. Not all of that pertained to the investigation, and media intervening in the case during a hearing agreed they only had an interest in content related to the rape and subsequent video voyeurism investigation.

But they also argued that included information like a purported list of sexual interests and partners Ziegler kept on his phone. It also could include videos of encounters between himself and other individuals, including with Bridget Ziegler.

The Zieglers’ attorneys argued none of that private information should become available for public consumption, particularly after police decided they lacked evidence to even bring a charge.

“We are thrilled with the court’s decision to uphold the constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures,” said Matthew Sarelson, a partner at Dhillon Law Group. “This ruling reaffirms the importance of privacy and the need for law enforcement to adhere strictly to legal standards when conducting searches.”

Notably, Dhillon Law Group, the firm representing the Zieglers’ in the civil case, was founded by Harmeet Dhillon, a California attorney who last year ran for Republican National Committee Chair and who had supported Christian Ziegler’s election as chair of the state GOP.

While the Zieglers’ attorneys obviously welcomed the ruling, some were surprised Carroll even dove into issues like search and seizure procedures and constitutional protections in a lawsuit focused on blocking the public release of documents. Sarelson in the trial had opted not to raise matters like a 2019 court decision not to publish evidence from a prostitution case involving Patriots owner Robert Kraft’s trial. Attorneys for Kraft had argued the evidence could prejudice a jury, but Christian Ziegler never faced a criminal trial.

Michael Barfield, Public Access Director at the Florida Center for Government Accountability, had personally intervened in the case seeking records, as did the organization. He said the Center will consider next steps in coming days, but said he is still studying a 46-page ruling, as are other attorneys.

“I’ll just say that consistent with expectations that were acknowledged by both parties and the judge, it is highly likely there will be an appeal,” he said.

State Attorney Ed Brodsky has not returned calls for comment. Sarasota City Attorney Robert Founier’s office said he is still studying the case.

While the ruling addresses matters of constitutional rights for suspects under investigation, individuals involved with the case stressed the ruling is in a civil trial, so it does not set binding precedent on its own. However, if the decision stands it will likely be decided by defendants in other criminal matters who would object to police seizing their phones as part of an investigation.

While Ziegler ultimately faces no criminal charges, he was ousted as Chair of the Republican Party. Bridget Ziegler also parted ways with the Leadership Institute, a national conservative think tank.

Christian Ziegler remains the Republican State Committeeman for Sarasota County but opted not to file for re-election. Bridget Ziegler retains her seat on the School Board despite colleagues unanimously calling for her resignation.

Jacob Ogles

Jacob Ogles has covered politics in Florida since 2000 for regional outlets including SRQ Magazine in Sarasota, The News-Press in Fort Myers and The Daily Commercial in Leesburg. His work has appeared nationally in The Advocate, Wired and other publications. Events like SRQ’s Where The Votes Are workshops made Ogles one of Southwest Florida’s most respected political analysts, and outlets like WWSB ABC 7 and WSRQ Sarasota have featured his insights. He can be reached at [email protected].


  • Ocean Joe

    July 1, 2024 at 4:02 pm

    Republican Swingers! These folks are so buttoned up with their constant spewing of morality for the rest of us it’s surprising the Zieglers had time for a three-some.

  • Kitty K

    July 1, 2024 at 4:28 pm

    Christian and Bridget Ziegler are sexual predators. We know that. Their name will always be synonymous with perversion. Let them take a victory lap. Tomorrow they will find out they are still a herpes sore of Sarasota.

  • Kitty K

    July 1, 2024 at 4:28 pm

    Christian and Bridget Ziegler are sexual predators. We know that. Their name will always be synonymous with perversion. Let them take a victory lap. Tomorrow they will find out they are still a herpes sore of Sarasota.

  • KathrynA

    July 2, 2024 at 4:38 pm

    Funny how prominent Republicans always find a judge willing to erase their records, no matter how evil? Do you wonder how many dollars are going to corrupt judges; including the Supreme Court? I used to respect our judiciary and I’m sure there are many good ones, but seem to be a fair number who are corrupted. Extremely sad!

    • My Take

      July 3, 2024 at 5:38 pm

      Or maybe nearly all far rightwingers are corrupt, no matter where they work.

Comments are closed.


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