A senior federal judge has gutted a criminal case championed by a Trump-appointed top federal prosecutor against a rock musician who posted promotional photos for his band on Facebook and had his home raided as a result.
Justin Coffman, a member of an anarcho-punk band called The Gunpowder Plot, was the target of a June 2020 home raid in Jackson, Tennessee, after he posted three professionally shot images on his band’s Facebook page. The photos showed him standing in front of a police vehicle and posing with a fake Molotov cocktail behind his back.
Months after the raid, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Tennessee charged Coffman under a rarely used statute that makes it unlawful to possess weapons as a user of an illegal drug. The charge has sometimes been used against white supremacists who espouse violence, but it was used here to target a member of a rock band with an antifascist theatrical motif.
Coffman was a legal gun owner, but law enforcement found a small amount of marijuana at his home during the raid. This, combined with Coffman’s admission that he used marijuana, gave authorities the basis for a federal charge.
Former U.S. Attorney Mike Dunavant, a Donald Trump appointee who has repeatedly demonstrated his dedication to the former president, held a press conference months after the raid to tout what he described as the “outstanding investigative work” in the case.
But Chief U.S. District Judge S. Thomas Anderson, who was appointed by former President George W. Bush, didn’t think so much of the investigative work.
In a remarkable ruling on Friday, Anderson ordered the evidence collected in the raid to be suppressed, finding that the search of Coffman’s residence was unconstitutional and that no reasonable officer acting in good faith could have believed the search warrant was evidence of probable cause to search the home.
Based on the totality of the affidavit, Anderson wrote, “a reasonably prudent person would not be warranted in believing that Coffman was in possession of a hoax device or improvised explosive incendiary device.”
Anderson wrote that the affidavit “glaringly” omitted the fact that The Gunpowder Plot is Coffman’s band, “although that information was doubtlessly easily accessible and known by the affiant and would have been highly relevant” to the local judge who found probable cause to execute the search warrant.
“In this instance, reasonable officers acting on the search warrant could not have harbored an objectively reasonable belief in the existence of probable cause, given the ‘bare bones’ nature of the affidavit,” Anderson wrote.
The government, Anderson wrote, “asks the Court to make a series of inferences from disparate events or facts without establishing the relationships between those inferences and the basis of knowledge underpinning said inferences.”
Anderson’s order tears apart the affidavit, written by Jackson Police Maj. Phillip Kemper, that formed the basis for the search of Coffman’s house. Anderson wrote that Kemper, as well as others like Jackson Police Lt. Chris Chestnut, should have had the common sense to realize that Coffman’s highly curated and First Amendment-protected images to promote his band did not offer a reasonable basis to search his home.
From the ruling:
Shortly after Lieutenant Chestnut informed his acquaintance that the police wished to speak with him, Coffman called the Lieutenant and informed him that the apparent Molotov cocktail was not, in fact, a Molotov cocktail. Rather, it was a prop filled with apple juice that Coffman was using in images to support or promote his musical band. Coffman stated that the images were taken “previously,” presumably not around the date they were posted. The affidavit does not establish a basis for questioning Coffman’s credibility. Indeed, the highly dramatic and evidently carefully curated appearance of the images and accompanying quote seems to lend credence to the theory that they are promotional images for a Rock band.
Coffman’s lawyer Alex Camp said the judge’s order should effectively end the federal case, but that the state case is still ongoing ― even though the relevant “hoax device” Tennessee law offers a specific exception for dramatic performances. (“Arguably, Coffman’s stated reasons of creating the images as promotional, artistic, images for his musical band” fall under the “dramatic performances” exception to the law, the federal judge wrote.)
Officers, Camp wrote in his successful motion to suppress the evidence against Coffman, “were aware that the Defendant was a musician in a band. Furthermore, officers were aware of the band’s name, the Defendant’s stage name, and the purpose of his Facebook post supporting his album,” but “nevertheless confronted the Defendant.”
Even after Trump left office, federal prosectors defended the search warrant and the case. Joseph Murphy, the acting U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Hillary Lawler Parham asked the court in early July to consider “the state of civil unrest and protest” in America following the death of George Floyd last year, saying it helped put the affidavit against Coffman in context.
Coffman, in a statement to HuffPost, said the case was “a great example of an overreach executed by authority figures to silence someone with whom they disagree with or opposes their status quo,” and that it went against “the very rights in the constitution they made an oath to uphold.”
“Cases like this are one reason we need major reformation of law enforcement agencies across the nation,” Coffman said. “Going through this has caused me hell and a lot of trouble, but I will not be deterred. I can not be silenced by intimidation.”
Coffman also thanked his girlfriend, Leah, as well as a HuffPost reader who paid his bail bond on the state charge and allowed Coffman to get out of jail after a month behind bars.
Dunavant, the former U.S. attorney ― who has posted “Happy Birthday” messages to Trump, as well a photo of himself holding a “MAKE AMERICA SAFE AGAIN” sign at a Trump rally ― did not respond to a message seeking comment.
Dunavant now works as chief investigative counsel for Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury Jason Mumpower, who has described Dunavant as a “widely respected public servant and a skilled attorney” with “experience and wisdom.”