A Renton, Washington native has been accused of felony cyberstalking for making a satirical cartoon depicting local crooked cops.  (Source: KIRO 7)

The video reportedly depicts a city bureaucrat, Penny Bartley, talking about covering up wrongdoing.  (Source: YouTube via KIRO 7)

The City of Renton's police department has been the subject of repeated internal affairs investigations.  (Source: KIRO 7)

The city's police chief has defended the search warrant, which many say violates the First Amendment protection of freedom of speech and freedom of the press.  (Source: KIRO 7)
Police department with long history of internal affairs investigations looks to charge satirist with felony

When cartoonist "Mrfuddlesticks" decided to make a series of animated videos parodying the local police department in Renton, Washington, they had ample source material from the media and the public record -- the city had suffered repeated misconduct scandals in recent history.  The individual used the popular animation site to create a series of videos making fun of the city's police department.  Little did they know, those videos would have them facing criminal charges [Scribd] for "cyberstalking".

I. Satirist Accused of Felony Crime for Cartoons

In what legal experts are calling a rampant abuse of power, police have taken the first steps towards filing criminal charges against the creator, claiming their creator violated the Washington State cyberstalking statute "RCW 9.61.260."  A local judge at the Superior Court for King County -- James Cayce -- has signed off on a search warrant sent to Google Inc. (GOOG).

The warrant is designed to obtain the real world identity of the cartoonist, who posted the videos to YouTube.  The videos were created using the same free animation suite as the famous viral "iPhone4 vs HTC Evo" video.  Two of the videos can be viewed here [1][2].

Legal experts blasted the move.  In an interview with a local news network, lawyer Venkat Balasubramani, a Constitutional and cyber-law expert, states, "The cyberstalking angle doesn't pass the laugh test.  It's a serious stretch. I'd be surprised if somebody looked at it and realistically thought well these acts actually fit the statute and we and could make a violation and hold someone criminally liable. [More likely] they were trying to get at the identity of the speaker and the looked around for a statute to shoehorn their conduct into."

But while legal experts say the felony charges are laughable, they're no laughing matter for the accused.  The statute lists the type of cyberstalking named in the case as a Class C felony -- applicable for up to 5 years in prison and a $10,000 USD fine.  Drug dealing and major theft are other examples of local Class C felonies.

II. Crooked Cops Abusing the Constitution?

As mentioned, the Renton PD has been the subject of numerous internal affairs investigations, including, reportedly, one into illicit relations between a female cop and a police officer.  The woman at the center of one of these investigations -- Renton Police's former Public Information Officer and current jail administrator, Penny Bartley -- is parodied as the female bureaucrat in the film.

In the video, the cartoon cop asks her, "Is there any reason why an anonymous video, with no identifying information that ties it to the department or city is being taken more seriously than officers having sex on duty, arguing with outside agencies while in a drunken stupor off duty, sleeping while on duty, throwing someone off a bridge, and having inappropriate relationships with coworkers and committing adultery?"

Ms. Bartley's character responds, "The reason is that internal dirt is internal. The department will crucify certain people and take care of others."

Ironically, despite the accusations against the satirist, the Renton Police department is never named explicitly in the cartoons, nor is Ms. Bartley.  The police are basing their case solely on the fact that the cartoons resemble reports of misconduct by internal affairs and the media.  

Chief Prosecutor Shawn Arthur writes, "[The videos] discussed a past incident tha has already been investigated.. regarding a dating relationship (a female detective) had with a suspect."

If the city police can succeed in their quest to imprison the cartoonist, they've done something numerous past U.S. politicians and bureaucrats have been unable to do -- ban satire.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the guiding document of Washington and other U.S. states, reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

In this case both the police department appears to be hoping to violate both the freedom of speech and freedom of press protections.

III. What's Next

The department remains defiant.  The prosecutor in the case refused to talk to local reporters, as did the police department.  Eventually Renton police Chief Kevin Milosevich spoke to reporters defending the investigation, stating, "Some of the videos are incidents of misconduct, some are unsubstantiated, some are rumors, some are previous internal investigations that were found to be unfounded and some are just flat out untrue and lies. I would rather err on the side of investigating all complaints (and) alleged criminal misconduct rather than risk failing to investigate a crime that's been reported."

Charges have not been filed, yet.  Some believe that the police merely are trying to use the guise of charges to obtain the suspect's name in order to harass him outside the courts.

The local American Civil Liberties Union has offered to defend the cartoonist if they stands trial.  An ACLU representative said, "[The charges are] ludicrous.  People do have the right to anonymous speech on the internet."

There's substantial legal risk to the department if they lose in court or fail to bring charges.  The defendant could file charges against the police department under various harassment and wrongful accusation laws.  Further, the police could find themselves the subject of yet another internal affairs investigation.

In the big picture, this is just one incident in a long string of digital age erosions of the public protections afforded by the first and fourth amendments.  Police have invaded peoples' properties [1][2] and snooped on their cell phones without warrant.  Most alarmingly, they have imprisoned people who have video-taped or photographed them on duty, something some say is an effort to cover up police brutality and other misconduct.

Ironically, many of the police departments who are pushing the hardest to seemingly violate the constitution and imprison hardworking Americans, also happen to be some of the departments with the highest rate of internal affairs (misconduct) reports.

"If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion." -- Scientology founder L. Ron. Hubbard

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