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Investigation moves forward on I-5 protest; ACLU challenges sheriff’s search warrant

#noDAPL protesters block Interstate 5 in Bellingham

Protesters blocked Interstate 5 northbound at Lakeway for more than an hour Saturday, Feb. 11, demonstrating over the Tuesday announcement by the U.S. Department of the Army to grant easement for the Dakota Access Pipeline. Traffic backed up 4 mil
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Protesters blocked Interstate 5 northbound at Lakeway for more than an hour Saturday, Feb. 11, demonstrating over the Tuesday announcement by the U.S. Department of the Army to grant easement for the Dakota Access Pipeline. Traffic backed up 4 mil

The Washington State Patrol has identified numerous suspects involved in a protest that blocked the northbound lanes of Interstate 5 for an hour, and prosecutors plan to bring charges, the state patrol said.

Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union is challenging a search warrant the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office has obtained for private social media data as part of the investigation.

The hourlong demonstration against the Dakota Access oil pipeline led to a 4-mile freeway backup after protesters stopped traffic just south of the Lakeway Drive exit on Feb. 11. The state patrol said the blockade led to a five-car rollover accident that left one person injured. The agency began investigating the protest the following day, soliciting information from witnesses to bring charges against participants.

Though a handful of state patrol troopers were able to respond to the scene during the protest, no arrests were made at the time, prompting criticism from people outraged by the demonstration. The agency, which only had three troopers on duty at the time, scrambled to send troopers from Skagit and Snohomish counties to the scene, but they were still outnumbered by protesters, which made arrests impossible, the state patrol has said.

Even as demonstration organizers were identified in the following days, the state patrol held off on arrests. Investigators are trying to identify as many as possible of the roughly 100 protesters who were on the freeway.

“We’re doing a lot more and digging a lot deeper than, ‘Hey, here’s a picture of guy standing on I-5,’ ” said Sgt. Mark Francis of the state patrol. “It’s a deeper investigation than just IDing the people that are in photos.”

ACLU filing

The ACLU’s motion Wednesday aims to block a search warrant obtained by the sheriff’s office and served to Facebook on Feb. 16. The warrant, the document says, asks for private messages and other data related to the Bellingham #NoDAPL Coalition Facebook page. The ACLU calls the warrant “overbroad and unconstitutional,” and says it violates the First and Fourth amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

“Political speech and the freedom to engage in political activity without being subjected to undue government scrutiny are at the heart of the First Amendment,” La Rond Baker, staff attorney at the ACLU of Washington, said in a statement announcing the filing.

“Further, the Fourth Amendment prohibits the government from performing broad fishing expeditions into private affairs. And seizing information from Facebook accounts simply because they are associated with protests of the government violates these core constitutional principles.”

In a statement issued to media Thursday, Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo confirmed his office was granted the warrant by a Whatcom County Superior Court judge. Prosecutors, Elfo said, asked his office for help in obtaining a search warrant.

“The Sheriff’s Office has no interest in the political views of anyone involved and is not seeking the same,” Elfo said. “Our purpose is to seek ... electronic data that relates to criminal, chaotic, disruptive and criminal behavior.”

A hearing on the motion will take place in Whatcom Superior Court at 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday.

Kyle Mittan: 360-756-2803, @KyleMittan

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