Newark officer fighting rebuke - He was suspended over Internet blog

Newark officer fighting rebuke - He was suspended over Internet blog

Thursday, December 20, 2007 Star-Ledger

A Newark police officer has filed a federal lawsuit that accuses the police department of violating his constitutional rights by suspending him without pay for anonymously criticizing his superiors on an Internet forum.

The suit by Officer Louis Wohlt man accuses the department of using improper subpoenas to ob tain his identity from an Internet provider, Optimum Online, and the Web forum,

Wohltman's attorneys, Rubin Sinins and Frank Corrado, said they hope the suit will break new ground in establishing the right of public employees to speak freely on the Internet without fear of reprisal.

"It's a fairly open area of the law," said Corrado, who is handling the case for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based organization that promotes free speech on the Internet. "There is very little case law in connection with an employee's anonymous speech on the Internet. To that extent we are in some uncharted waters."

Wohltman, who filed suit Dec. 10 in U.S. District Court in Newark, was one of four Newark officers disciplined last year for using anonymous postings on Newarkspeaks to criticize superiors. One of the superiors was Anthony Ambrose, police director under former Newark Mayor Sharpe James.

The three other officers were fired, but Wohltman, a 15-year veteran who lives in Landing, was given a nine-month suspension without pay that he has been serv ing since late summer.

Although the internal investiga tion of the officers began under the James administration, Wohltman's suspension was authorized by Garry McCarthy, Mayor Cory Booker's appointee as police direc tor, Sinins said.

Some of Wohltman's postings -- which Sinins said were made while he was off-duty -- were ribald personal attacks on the brass. He called one superior a drunk, a thief and a "wise-guy wannabe," accused others of drug use and pictured Ambrose with a clown nose and clown hair, labeling him a "bubble-gum gangster with a GED."

But in other postings, he aired issues of public concern, decrying a departmental shortage of typewriters, fax machines, copiers and vehicles.

In their effort to learn the officers' identities, Newark police presented grand jury subpoenas to Cablevision, Comcast, Optimum On line, the Planet, Yahoo and Moses Wilson, the operator of Newark speaks.

Sinins and Corrado said some of the subpoenas were signed by John Wojtal, then an assistant Essex County prosecutor, but others bore his name in different handwriting. They said none had return dates, which they said are a requirement of authentic subpoenas.

The attorneys said they ob tained a letter in which the prosecutor's office informed the police that there were no grounds for a criminal investigation of the officers. They said that should have precluded the department from using grand jury subpoenas in their internal probe.

"I think it's fair to say that the circumstances under which the subpoenas were issued was highly questionable," Corrado said.

Newark police officials did not return a call and e-mail seeking comment.

Sinins and Corrado are also the attorneys for Shirley Reid, a Cape May County woman who was charged with hacking into her employer's computer system after police obtained her identity from Comcast by using a municipal court subpoena.

The Superior Court Appellate Division overturned her conviction, finding that law enforcement agencies need a valid grand jury subpoena issued at the Superior Court level to obtain the identity of an Internet user.

The case is now pending before the state Supreme Court, where Si nins said he and Corrado are seek ing to establish a requirement that Internet users be informed when their identities are the subject of subpoenas so they can mount a challenge in court.

Comments (0)

New comments are currently disabled.

Email to Friend

Fill in the form below to send this article to a friend:

Email to Friend
* Your Name:
* Your Email:
* Friend's Name:
* Friend's Email:
* Security Image:
Security Image Generate new
Copy the numbers and letters from the security image
* Message: