One of the country's most prominent independent bookstores, the Tattered Cover in Denver, has scored a victory in a case pitting First Amendment freedoms against drug war law enforcement imperatives. In a Monday ruling, the Colorado Supreme Court held that police erred when they attempted to force the Tattered Cover to reveal the name of the person who ordered two books on drug manufacture found at the scene of a raided drug laboratory.
In the unanimous ruling, Colorado's highest court held that both the First Amendment and the Colorado constitution "protect an individual's right to purchase books anonymously, free from government interference." The ruling overturned a state appeals court decision that ordered the bookstore to comply with a police search warrant seeking the name of the book purchaser.
The case originated with a raid on a suburban Denver trailer home by the North Metro Drug Task Force in March 2000. Agents found a meth lab. Outside the trailer, agents also found a mailing envelope and invoice for the two books in question, "Advanced Techniques of Clandestine Psychedelic and Amphetamine Manufacture" by Uncle Fester and "The Construction and Operation of Clandestine Drug Labs" by Jack B. Nimble, both published by Loompanics Unlimited, a Port Townsend, WA, publisher. But the invoice contained only the trailer's address, not the name of the book buyer. Police obtained a search warrant to force the Tattered Cover to reveal the name of the book buyer, but when bookstore owner Joyce Meskins refused to comply, authorities agreed not to serve the warrant until the courts had a chance to decide the issue.
Now, the state's ultimate court has decided, and booksellers' groups and civil libertarians are claiming a victory for privacy. "We think this is a very, very important decision because it is the strongest opinion on the issue of protecting customer privacy in bookstores that has come down so far," said Chris Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, which provided financial support and wrote an amicus brief in the case.
"I think the decision will be upheld as the decision to go to when other courts confront this issue," Tattered Cover attorney Dan Recht told the Denver Post.
The case is the first of its kind to be decided by a state supreme court. Because the decision is based at least in part on provisions of the Colorado constitution, it cannot be threatened by federal court rulings.
Meskins told the New York Times the case had been demanding, but was worth the effort. "Two years is a long time to be working on this," said Meskins. "There is an implied understanding when an individual goes into a library or a bookstore with respect to the privacy of their reading material," she said.
The court agreed. "We hold that the city has failed to demonstrate that its need for this evidence is sufficiently compelling to outweigh the harmful effects of the search warrant," the court held. The ruling also referred repeatedly to the "chilling effect" of search warrants issued without prior hearings.
"Bookstores are places where a citizen can explore ideas, receive information, and discover the myriad perspectives on every topic imaginable," wrote the court. "When a person buys a book at a bookstore, he engages in activity protected by the First Amendment because he is exercising his right to read and receive ideas and information."
"Hooray," said Michael Hoy, owner of Loompanics. "I couldn't be happier with the court's ruling. If you allow that sort of thing to go on, then nobody will feel secure," he told DRCNet. "This is just another example of trying to use the war on drugs to erode our rights. If a cop can't make a case without subpoenaing a bookstore, then he doesn't have a case."
Uncle Fester and Jack B. Nimble were not available for comment.