Louisiana Man Cleared to Sue Cops After SWAT Raid Over Facebook Joke

(Grace Beahm Alford /The Post And Courier via AP)

Whatever one may think of the COVID-19 situation, one thing that cannot be denied is that it pushed America to its breaking point. Between the lockdowns, the closures, the runs on stores, the increase in substance abuse, and the online predation of children, and the the impromptu Salem Witch Trials of people seen without socially acceptable masks, it was a rough time in America. And plenty of people tried to inject a little levity into the situation to take the edge off, including Alexandria, Louisiana, resident Waylon Bailey.

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The Washington Post reports that in March 2020, Bailey posted the following to his Facebook page:

SHARE SHARE SHARE ! ! ! ! JUST IN: RAPIDES PARISH SHERIFFS OFFICE HAVE ISSUED THE ORDER, IF DEPUTIES COME INTO CONTACT WITH ‘THE INFECTED’ SHOOT ON SIGHT….Lord have mercy on us all. #Covid9teen #weneedyoubradpitt.

Bailey was making a joke. But the Rapides Parish Sheriff’s Office was not laughing. A few hours later, a SWAT team showed up at Bailey’s home without a warrant but with bulletproof vests and brandishing weapons. Bailey was arrested for making a terroristic threat. According to court documents, as Bailey was  handcuffed one of the deputies stated, “…next thing [you] put on Facebook should be not to f*ck with the police.” The other officers laughed. The documents also state:

(Detective Randell) Iles advised Bailey of his rights, took a brief statement, and told him he was being charged with terrorizing. Bailey told Iles that the Facebook post was a joke and apologized. In a supplemental investigative report completed after the arrest, Iles recounted that Bailey told him he had “no ill will towards the Sheriff’s Office; he only meant it as a joke.” Bailey deleted his Facebook post after Iles told him that he could either delete it himself or the RPSO would contact Facebook to remove it.

Iles later filled out an affidavit of probable cause for arrest without a warrant, noting that Bailey had been arrested for “Terrorizing” in violation of statute number “14.40.1.” Under the heading “probable cause and facts of arrest,” he wrote that “the suspect put up a Facebook post that Rapides Parish Sheriff’s Office has order to ‘Shoot on Sight’ due to the Corona Virus (sic) outbreak. Arrested without incident.” Iles testified at his deposition that he determined that the Facebook post was criminal based solely on the words of the post itself, and not based on anything Bailey told him.

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Bailey was released on a $1,200 bond later that day, and the district attorney opted not to press charges. The sheriff’s office posted its own announcement of the arrest on Facebook, stating that Bailey had been arrested for terrorism. The incident made the local news, and Bailey claimed he lost friends, stuck to his house for months, and deleted his social media accounts. The following September, Bailey filed suit against Iles and Sheriff Mark Wood on the grounds that his First and Fourth Amendment rights had been violated. But a judge dismissed that suit, claiming that Iles and Wood were under the protection of qualified immunity, and justified Bailey’s arrest since, according to the Post article, the judge believed that Bailey’s post “may very well have been intended to incite lawless action.” Bailey appealed.

On August 25th, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found in Bailey’s favor. The decision stated in part:

Bailey intended the post as a joke and did not intend to scare anyone. The “hashtag” “#weneedyoubradpitt” referenced the zombie movie World War Z, starring Brad Pitt. Bailey included the hashtag to “bring light to the fact that it was a joke.” He was bored during the COVID-19 lockdown and used Facebook to keep in touch with friends and “make light of the situation.”

It was also noted that Bailey’s post was in response to another comical post and contained emojis.

The appellate judge ruled that Bailey could continue with his legal action and concluded that the district court was in error when it said that Bailey’s post was not protected by the First Amendment and in granting qualified immunity to Iles and Wood. And then it reiterated that it “REVERSE the district court’s grant of summary judgment to Defendants and REMAND for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

Related: Three Police Officers Shot in Los Angeles and It Doesn’t Make the Front Page of the L.A. Times (but Look at What Does)

Before continuing, I want to make a few things clear. As a reporter, I spent quite a bit of time with the local sheriff’s office. I did ride-alongs, checked in with them daily, helped put out the “wanted list,” covered their news stories, and even took a few turns in the firearms simulation trailer. I attended the department parties, ate dinner in the deputies’ homes, spent my bachelor Christmas days with the sheriff’s family, and even joined in the semi-regular all-cops poker night. (I am a lousy poker player and am even worse at bluffing.) I trained alongside several officers in HazMat, and I had two cops as my groomsmen when I got married. I am not someone who goes around spray painting ACAB on walls or declaring my yard a sovereign nation and printing my own money and license plates. I’ve known a lot of cops, and almost every one of them was a stand-up person.

That having been said, what happened in Alexandria, Louisiana? The detectives I knew would have put something out on Facebook (had it existed at the time) letting the public know that they were not shooting, arresting, harassing, or otherwise vexing infected people. And then they may well have called Mr. Bailey in to explain himself. They would not have sent a SWAT team to Bailey’s home.

The pandemic brought out the worst in many people. It might have been the person who wheeled out multiple carts from Costco. Or the person in my neighborhood who bought every container of hand sanitizer he could get his hands on and then tried to sell it at three times the price. It might have been the drug makers and the government that pushed through an untried and untested vaccine, or it might just have been that person who marched up to you in the store and had a meltdown because your mask had slipped from your nose. It might have even been Joe Biden’s speech or Fauci’s ducking and dodging combined with his ego. In this case, it was a group of officers already stressed over the riots, who suddenly felt empowered to “saddle up and lock and load” over a Facebook post between friends. One can almost hear the theme from “The Magnificent Seven” playing in the background. This is unfortunate. We have come to expect that our federal government will co-opt a crisis to expand its reach. It is even more unfortunate when it happens on a local level. It is what happens when people succumb to a crisis, rather than rise to it.

Even more chilling is the fact that the post that set the SWAT team into motion was intended as a joke. Compound that with the facts that the district court found that Bailey’s rights had not been violated and shielded the detective and the sheriff, a clear picture emerges as to how dire things are. And not just for Donald Trump and his supporters or for someone who was defending his son outside of an abortion clinic. Even one’s jokes are suspect. Now, an off-hand Facebook comment could land one in Room 101.

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