On April 8, 2002, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled police could not force a Denver bookstore to hand over the names of individuals who purchased books detailing the manufacture of illegal drugs. Colorado Supreme Court Protects Privacy of Book Buyers

On April 8, 2002, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled police could not force a Denver bookstore to hand over the names of individuals who purchased books detailing the manufacture of illegal drugs.

In a unanimous 6-0 decision, the state high court ruled the First Amendment and state Constitution guarantee the "fundamental right to purchase books anonymously, free from governmental interference." The decision overturns a lower court ruling ordering Tattered Cover book store owner Joyce Meskis to provide sales records to a Denver-area drug task force.

Police and prosecutors had argued that the records were necessary to lead them to the operator of a mobile home-cum-methamphetamine lab where the books "Advanced Techniques of Clandestine Psychedelic and Amphetamine Manufacture" and "The Construction and Operation of Clandestine Drug Laboratories" were found. Discovered outside the mobile home was an envelope from the Tattered Cover with the trailer’s address and an invoice number, but no name.

Police suspect the man who lived in the master bedroom of the meth lab where the drugs and books were found but felt they needed more proof before arresting him. Huh? If a man can escape arrest after living in the "master" bedroom of a mobile home/drug factory, why should his reading preferences condemn him?

In pointing out that police already had sufficient evidence to link the occupant of the trailer to the meth lab, Justice Michael L. Bender wrote for the court: "We hold that the city has failed to demonstrate that its need for this evidence is sufficiently compelling to outweigh the harmful effects of the search warrant." Only in rare instances, where police can show the evidence to be obtained from a bookstore is absolutely vital and cannot be obtained in any other way, should search warrants for customer sales records be authorized, according to the court. Even in those rare circumstances, however, the court feels the bookseller has the right to contest the warrant in a special hearing.

It seems the how-to-be-a-criminal-and-earn-money-at-home books in question did not have to rise to the level of Plato’s "The Republic" to garner protection for their readers, and rightly so. We can think of few things more personal and private — if not sometimes embarrassing — than one’s preferred reading list, which is not yet, in and of itself, a crime.

To date, no arrests have been made in the case pending the state Supreme Court’s decision. However, police appear ready -- after two years of legal wrangling -- to move forward with the case absent the book receipts.

April 11, 2002
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