An Evansville, Indiana SWAT team recently attempted to execute a search warrant that was issued to make an example out of an anonymous Internet user who made malicious remarks on the Web. Instead, they destroyed the home of an innocent grandmother.
When members of the Midwest town’s SWAT team plotted their raid on the alleged home of the person behind some unpleasant remarks published on an Internet forum, they invited a local television crew to accompany them so that they could catch the whole thing on camera. Instead of arresting the author of the ill-tempered posts, however, the Evansville SWAT ravaged the home of an elderly woman and confiscated her 18-year-old granddaughter’s laptop.
The SWAT team did not have the name of who they were going after. They barely even had an identity. What they did have to work with, though, was the IP address of a person who logged onto the Topix.com Web forums and made discouraging remarks about local law enforcement.
An archived copy of the thread in question reveals that the police department might have had a reason to be worried. “Cops be aware,” a person using the handle usarmy wrote on Topix. The thread began when another user claimed that the home addresses of Evansville Police Department officers had been leaked and was spreading online, and usarmy was hardly the first person to reply. When the person behind that username did write a response, however, they had some things to say that didn’t sit well with the EPD. In between a slew of self-censored expletives, the author implied that they were considering an attack on an unspecified member of the police department.
“4th of July a cops house gonna get hit. dont care about your kids or btchs lives. I dnt even care bout my own life. I got my reasons..times ticking,” reads one post from usarmy.
“I am proud of my county, but I hate police of any kind,” reads another. “I have explosives.:) made in America.Evansville will feel my pain.guess who's in the river.”
Acting on the assumed planned act of aggression, officials were able to figure out the author’s IP address. As several courts have ruled recently, though, that isn’t enough to exactly single out a certain home, let alone a person. While an Internet Protocol address can be linked to a computer, any person who accesses that network’s WiFi — with or without authorization — can be linked to that IP. Only last month, in fact, New York Eastern District federal court magistrate Judge Gary Brown ruled that IP address logs can’t be used on its own to link a suspect to a crime, writing “a single IP address usually supports multiple computer devices – which unlike traditional telephones can be operated simultaneously by different individuals.” District Court Judge Howard R. Lloyd made essentially the same ruling one month earlier in a Northern District of California courtroom.
Ira Milan, whose house ended up targeted by the authorities, tells the Evansville Courier & Press that she thinks the author of the posts used her granddaughter’s Internet connection from an outside location. Police Chief Billy Bolin says it is much more cut and dry, though.
“We have no way of being able to tell that,” Bolin tells the Courier, adding that the messages “definitely come back to that address.”
Police reps tell the Courier that they obtained a search warrant for computer equipment at Milan’s house so that they could collect whatever devices may have been used to make the anonymous posts. Responding to an inquiry from the paper, though, the Vanderburgh County Clerk’s Office was initially unable to locate a copy of the document; Vanderburgh County Prosecutor Nick Hermann also refused to comply with the request. When Bolin was asked by the media to materialize the warrant, he deferred their plea and insisted that producing the paper could compromise the investigation. What Bolin did have to say, however, was that the document did not contain the names of any suspects.
“We have an idea in our mind who it is, but we don’t have evidence yet,” Bolin explains to the Courier.
Even still, the department says that the hunch was enough to throw two flash-bang stun grenades into the front window of Ira Milan’s home. The Courier Press reports that the front door was open at the time of the incident.
“To bring a whole SWAT team seems a little excessive,” says Milan.
Authorities say it should prove their point, though.
“This is a big deal to us,” Sgt. Jason Cullum, a police department spokesman, tells the Courier Press. “This may be just somebody who was online just talking stupid. What I would suggest to anybody who visits websites like that is that their comments can be taken literally.”
A day after the raid, 18-year-old Stephanie Milan’s cellphone and laptops were still being held by police.