Court overturns order against bookstore owner in Colorado

By STEVEN K. PAULSON, Associated Press

DENVER (April 8, 2002 3:31 p.m. EDT) – The Colorado Supreme Court refused to order a bookstore Monday to tell police who bought two how-to books on making illegal drugs, saying the First Amendment protects the right to purchase books anonymously.

The decision overturns a ruling by a Denver judge who said Tattered Cover Book Store owner Joyce Meskis must give records of the sale to a Denver-area drug task force.

Police and prosecutors in the closely watched case had argued that the buyer’s identity was critical to their investigation of a methamphetamine lab, and that they had no other way to prove who owned the books.

But the high court ruled that the First Amendment and the Colorado Constitution “protect an individual’s fundamental right to purchase books anonymously, free from governmental interference.”

“It is a huge relief and just a thoughtful and well-reasoned decision by the court for which we are very grateful,” Meskis said.

Police sought the records after finding an envelope from the bookstore outside a mobile home they had raided. Inside the home were a methamphetamine lab and the how-to books “Advanced Techniques of Clandestine Psychedelic and Amphetamine Manufacture” and “The Construction and Operation of Clandestine Drug Laboratories.”

The envelope was printed with an invoice number and the trailer’s address, but no name. Police found no fingerprints on the books and obtained a search warrant to find out who ordered it.

The court said Monday that the search warrant should never have been issued.

The Tattered Cover, one of the country’s largest independent bookstores, had argued that the order violated its customers’ First Amendment rights. It was assisted in the case by the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression.

So far, no arrests have been made in the drug case pending the outcome of the court challenge.

Bob Grant, who as the district attorney in adjacent Adams District refused to go after a search warrant, forcing police to go to the Denver district attorney, said the ruling sets a higher standard than the one established by the U.S. Supreme Court.

He said the ruling will force prosecutors to show a compelling need, as opposed to just the “substantial and legitimate interest” required in most states.

Prosecutors could still go back to court with more evidence to meet the higher standard.

Sue Armstrong, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, said the ruling does not prohibit police from getting records but sets the bar higher for obtaining a search warrant.

“The court has showed its best face in protecting the rights of privacy for those of us who visit bookstores,” Armstrong said.