Searching professor's house for guns based on Facebook joke was unreasonable, appeals court rules

In a fittingly bizarre end to a case of police ineptitude too implausible for an episode of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” prosecutors won’t be able to use illegally seized drugs they found in a Missouri professor’s home while searching for the guns he joked on Facebook about having.

A state appeals court threw out the evidence found at former Northwest Missouri State journalism professor Matthew Rouch’s house, finding that the search warrant was so baseless that police could not even have been honestly mistaken in relying on it.

Remarkably, the case involved an illegal search for evidence that was then used to support a second illegal search, only the latter of which was at issue in Rouch’s case.

Rouch was arrested in September 2013 when police — while searching his house for guns — instead found marijuana-growing supplies. 

The Keystone Kops case began when the student newspaper, The Northwest Missourian, published an article mentioning a remark that an NMSU professor posted on Facebook, in which he joked about becoming so frustrated with students that he would “be wanting to get to the top of the bell tower with a high powered rifle” later in the semester. The professor wasn’t named in the column.

After an editor mentioned the column in a conversation with NMSU’s police chief, campus officers showed up at the newsroom with a search warrant and demanded the original screenshot of the Facebook post, which the editor surrendered.

That was illegal search #1.

The federal Privacy Protection Act, a 1980 statute that was specifically enacted to outlaw police searches of college newsrooms after a particularly egregious case at California’s Stanford Daily, makes it illegal to search or seize property where a journalist stores unpublished newsgathering material. A warrant isn’t good enough — a search can take place only after a court hearing at which the journalist is represented. That didn’t happen at NMSU.

But that wasn’t the illegal search on which Rouch won his case. 

In July, a Missouri circuit judge threw out the drugs and paraphernalia found at Rouch’s home, on the grounds that an obviously joking Facebook post did not provide probable cause justifying a search warrant.

On Dec. 16, a three-judge panel of the Missouri Court of Appeals agreed:

[I]t is readily apparent on the face of the warrant and affidavit thatthe items subject to the warrant were not contraband or evidence of a crime. The clearreason for which the warrant was sought was to assess Rouch’s capability to commit aviolent crime in the future. 

The judges found that the search-warrant affidavit executed by the campus police chief was misleading, because it omitted the chief’s interviews with Rouch and others on the faculty who read the Facebook post, each of whom considered it a harmless joke and none of whom took it seriously. Even if the search had turned up guns, the judges wrote, it was legal for Rouch to own firearms and the mere presence of weapons in the house would not have supported the leap that he intended to shoot up the campus.

Because the search for weapons was unsupported by probable cause, the marijuana plants and growing equipment serendipitously found during the search cannot be used against Rouch, likely ending any attempt to prosecute him for the drug charges. And reaffirming the adage that two wrong searches don’t make a right.