Passaic County Sheriff Plays Politics

7 10 2009

passaic county sheriffI’m sure glad I don’t live in Passaic County. The sheriff might throw me in the slammer for impersonating J.J. Moon.

“J.J. Moon” is the screen name I use when I post on surfing websites. It’s also the name of a fictional surf star created by Surfer Magazine during the 1960s. J.J. would often be pictured riding a huge wave in Hawaii or riding the nose at Malibu.

But the photos were created with a cut-and-paste technique that was the low-tech equivalent of Photoshop. It was all a big joke, and you’d have to have been really dull-witted to take it seriously.

Sort of like Passaic County Sheriff Jerry Speziale. At least I hope he’s dull-witted. Otherwise he’s guilty of the most blatant case of political persecution I’ve ever seen.

The victim was Harry Clark, a 49-year-old resident of West Milford who fixes copy machines for a living and who is active with the Republican Party. In 2007, for a joke, he created an account at this newspaper’s website,, under the screen name “JimGeist.” That name is very close to that of a local Democrat by the name of James Geist.

The joke was obvious to anyone paying attention. The profile of “JimGeist,” for example, included the statement “I am an admirer of the greatest guy in the world Harry Clark.”

Geist was not amused. He fired off a letter to his fellow Democrat, Sheriff Jerry Speziale, in which he noted that “some Republicans have been using the internet site to harass several of our members,” by which Geist meant members of the West Milford Democratic Club. He went on to call for the sheriff to bring criminal charges against whoever was doing the posting.

At this point, Speziale should have called up Geist and recited the old saying, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Instead, he put his crack internet crime team on the case. Before long Clark was being hauled off by three officers. The sheriff’s office had signed off on two complaints charging him with forgery and identity theft based on “posting messages ridiculing and defaming others without consent.”

As I sat in Clark’s kitchen the other day reading that complaint I nearly fell out of my chair. I have a blog on If posting messages ridiculing and defaming others under a false name is a crime, then half my readers belong in jail.

But there’s something about the internet that makes people go crazy, even people who should know better, such as journalists. The local paper led its Passaic County section with news of the arrest for “alleged misuse of the internet” that involved “anonymous, insulting remarks” without giving the slightest hint that insulting remarks, whether anonymous or not, are not against the law. The story ended with the reporter’s observation that “Clark most likely will face thousands of dollars in fines, and could be given jail time.”

Well maybe in the old Soviet Union. Here in the good, old U.S. of A. the prosecution was troubled from the beginning. Though a prosecutor initially told Clark, “these are very serious charges and you could go to jail for a long time for this,” he says, by September of that year the charges had been downgraded to a disorderly persons offense to be heard in municipal court.

That should have been the end of it, but the prosecutor persisted, changing the putative offense to “harassment” when it was obvious the fraud and identity-theft charges were bogus.

Finally, the case came before someone with some common sense, Pompton Lakes Municipal Court Judge Frank Santoro. Last month he threw the whole thing out.

When I got Sheriff’s spokesman Bill Maer on the phone, he said Speziale stands by the prosecution.

“We maintain that our investigators found that the manner in which this individual did this, by saying they were somebody else setting up a fictitious screen name and saying they were somebody else, was illegal,” said Maer.

Interesting. But then why isn’t the sheriff going after Geist himself? In the course of the proceedings it developed that he has been posting online using the name of a certain “Barack Obama.”

When I got Geist on the phone, he said his use of Obama’s name and the name of other political figures online was clearly satirical. And I’m sure it was. But Clark’s use of Geist’s name was also a joke, a common one on the internet. Of the thousands who play such jokes every day, only Clark had his name dragged through the mud and spent tens of thousands of dollars on legal fees.

Maer denied politics entered into the prosecution. And maybe he’s right. Maybe the sheriff and the prosecutor are so busy that neither has had the time to read the Constitution.

It’s about time they did, starting with the First Amendment.




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