Hobby or harassment? Blogger Strom jailed for cop site
Elisha Strom has been sitting in Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail for two weeks. Her alleged crime? Publishing the address of an officer on the Jefferson Area Drug Enforcement– JADE– task force.
"It's a stupid reason to be in jail," says the 34-year-old blogger, who maintains she was merely chronicling the activities of JADE as a hobby on her blog, I HeArTE JADE.
Since October 2008, Strom–- already unpopular for her connections to the white separatist movement–- has earned the opprobrium of law enforcement by following around JADE members, photographing them, and giving them nicknames like "Dasani," "Longhead," "Pringle," and "Porn Star."
Her last post on July 16 reads tersely: "Uh-Oh. They're here."
The Code of Virginia forbids publication
of law-enforcement officers' addresses or photographs with the "intent to coerce, intimidate, or harass" in §18.2-186.4. Most recently updated in 2007, the Class 6 felony carries a mandatory six-month jail sentence.
"It's not illegal to publish the address," argues Strom in an exclusive jailhouse interview nearly two weeks after her July 16 arrest. "It's not illegal to publish the photograph. It's illegal to do so with the intention of harassment."
She denies that harassment was her intent, and says she uses her blog to satisfy her curiosity about the task force, comparing her efforts to investigative journalism.
"Part of the problem is the concern for people who'd want to do harm to an officer trying to perform his job," says Albemarle Commonwealth's Attorney Denise Lunsford. "There are many ways to prove intent."
Lunsford reels off such factors as the language on I HeArTE JADE, the context, and what Strom may have said to other people.
Strom insists that JADE no longer constitutes an undercover task force because Charlottesville is so small that the officers rely on informants to infiltrate drug networks. "I didn't put up any information about informants," she declares.
The officer's address Strom published came from public records, as both Charlottesville and Albemarle put real estate records online. She added a photograph of the officer's house– some house photos are also available online– and a picture of him getting into a Monte Carlo.
"I think they're embarrassed, and I think they're mad," opines Strom of the JADE men. She adds that she's sorry about the concern she caused the officer whose address she posted.
Her interest in JADE stems, she says, from the arrest and conviction of her estranged husband, white separatist Kevin Strom, for one count of child porn possession. He was found not guilty of intimidating a witness–- Elisha–- and enticement of a minor in October 2007, but pleaded guilty to the kiddie porn charge and served 23 months.
One of the investigators on the Kevin Strom case, Charlottesville Police Detective Brian O'Donnell, also has worked on the JADE task force.
What's unclear is whether a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, Ostergren v. McDonnell, will have any effect on the law under which Strom is charged.
Privacy advocate B.J. Ostergren was aggrieved that Virginia public records often include Social Security Numbers, and to call attention to the identity-theft threat, she published the SSNs of public officials that she found online.
The General Assembly responded by making it illegal to publish such info, even if it came from government records. Unconstitutional, ruled the U.S. Supreme Court in June.
ACLU of Virginia executive director Kent Willis sees a lot of similarity between Virginia's police-harassment law and a similar one in Washington state that was overturned by U.S. District Court in Sheehan v. Gregoire.
"Based on the Sheehan case, [Virginia] law is probably unconstitutional as written," says Willis. "You can publish information about public officials to goad them to action. It can't contain an actual threat to do physical harm."
Unemployed, Strom has been unable to post $7,500 in bond. Her next court date is September 17.
"A girl came in for assaulting an officer the same weekend I did, and she got less bond then me," notes Strom. "I never assaulted an officer."
Meanwhile, her blog is still up. "It's not coming down while I'm in here," she says.
Updated 9:35am July 30.