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Bookstore fights order to turn over sales records

By The Associated Press

12.06.01

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BRIGHTON, Colo. — Police investigating a drug case should be denied access to a bookstore's sales records to avoid a stifling effect on readers nationwide, store attorneys argued yesterday.

"If what we read today can result in a search warrant tomorrow, then fear replaces freedom," Tattered Cover Book Store attorney Dan Recht told Colorado Supreme Court justices.

Andy Nathan, attorney for police and prosecutors, said police officers have no other way to prove who owned a book that is critical to their investigation.

"The Tattered Cover has attempted to make this a seminal case on the First Amendment. It is not," he said. "It is about receipts for a book found in a meth lab. It's about evidence."

The seven-judge panel took the matter under advisement and is expected to issue an opinion in the next few months.

The hearing at Brighton High School centered on an appeal filed by Tattered Cover owner Joyce Meskis of a judge's order to tell police who bought two books on drug making from her shop.

Meskis contends the order violates her customers' First Amendment rights.

The case began last year when North Metro Drug Task Force members found two new books about how to make methamphetamine in a trailer that contained a lab northeast of Denver.

In garbage stored outside, they found an empty Tattered Cover envelope printed with an invoice number and the trailer's address, but no name. Police found no fingerprints on the book and asked for a search warrant to find out who ordered the book.

Prosecutors say they need the sales records to prove a suspect knowingly violated the law by building an illegal methamphetamine lab, a requirement for a conviction under Colorado law. They said without the records, it would be difficult to show which of six people with access to the lab knew how to build one.

Denver District Judge J. Stephens Phillips last year ordered the store to give police a copy of the invoice believed to have been in the envelope. But he turned down investigators' original request to see all records of what one person bought during a month's time.

Both sides agreed the case should go straight to the high court to expedite the drug investigation.

During arguments, Recht said police failed to question any of the suspects and did not exhaust all of their alternatives before seeking book records. He said police also failed to show a compelling need for getting a warrant for the records.

"It should be a last resort, not a first resort," he said.

Police said they held off questioning suspects so they could build their case.

Justices suggested the purpose of the records request was to use the contents of the book to prove their case, not the invoice.

"That's the level where we get into constitutional protections, isn't it?" asked Justice Nancy Rice.

The court met in the school auditorium to give students a chance to learn more about the courts. Afterward, attorneys took questions.

Senior Robin Hebert told attorneys they were taking a big risk with First Amendment rights in return for a minor piece of evidence.

"We'll never know until we get to a jury how important that evidence is," Nathan responded.

The Tattered Cover, one of the country's largest independent bookstores, is getting help from the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression with legal costs.

Meskis said if she loses her appeal, she will work to change the law.

Update

Colorado high court refuses to order bookstore to turn over records
First Amendment, state constitution 'protect an individual's fundamental right to purchase books anonymously, free from governmental interference.'  04.08.02

Previous

Police can search Denver bookstore's sales records, judge says
Store owner says releasing records will have chilling effect, prevent many from reading books on taboo subjects.  10.23.00

Related

First Amendment outrage of the week: Bookstore tries to shelve subpoena of purchase records
It should come as no surprise that the Drug Enforcement Administration and the North Metro Area Drug Task Force, which operates in the Denver area, would be most anxious to do everything they could to shut down a methamphetamine laboratory and prosecute those involved in the production of the illicit drug.  04.21.00

Federal judge quashes subpoena for Kansas bookstore's sales records
Civil liberties groups had expressed concern about possible 'chilling effect on book purchasers and booksellers.'  12.04.00

Kramerbooks declares victory in subpoena battle
Agreement between D.C. bookseller and Starr comes two weeks after judge drops case against Barnes & Noble.  06.22.98

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