The Dreaming Ant video-rental store was a busy place around 5:30 p.m. on Jan. 19. But not in a good way.
"Everywhere I looked there was an officer," recalls store employee Andrew McKeon. Seven police officers -- "a sea of them" -- were filling the space located in the back of the Bloomfield Crazy Mocha coffee shop.
The officers had come to the store with a search warrant. They took Dreaming Ant's computer, which the store uses to track video rentals, and a wireless router also used by customers of the adjoining coffee shop.
"I was pretty intimidated," says McKeon, an occasional City Paper contributor. "They made it seem like they wanted to show they had force so there were no questions asked."
One customer did ask about the seizure. The previous week, a fake press release had been sent to local media, asserting that the city's police union had rescinded its support for three officers involved in the January 2010 beating of Homewood student Jordan Miles. Did the raid have something to do with that?
According to McKeon, one of the officers answered by demanding the customer's ID and telling him, "Now you're a suspect."
"It was just absurd," says McKeon.
Police made clear that Dreaming Ant staff were not considered suspects. But the store remained closed for two days until the computer was returned. And there is growing concern about how police are handling what is, arguably, merely a pointed satire.
"This is an egregious abuse of authority," says Vic Walczak, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union. "I understand the [police union] being miffed, but that's not grounds for a witch hunt."
The Case of the Mysterious Press Release began on Jan. 10, when local media outlets received an e-mailed statement, printed on a phony version of the letterhead used by the Fraternal Order of Police. The FOP represents city officers, and it has staunchly defended the three officers involved in the Miles beating. (Each of the officers has been on paid administrative leave for the past year, pending federal and local investigations.)
Based on photos taken of Miles after the incident, the fake release claimed, the FOP had changed its position, deciding that "a crime was committed against a young man innocent of anything to deserve his treatment. ... [T]he Pittsburgh FOP acknowledges that its public actions to support the officers have hampered public confidence in the force."
The e-mail's real author remains a mystery, and union officials quickly declared the statement a hoax. While it was widely reported as such by media outlets, police demanded that charges be filed. "If we catch anyone with regard to this, it's going to be multiple felonies," FOP President Dan O'Hara was quoted as saying in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
According to an affidavit of probable cause -- a sworn statement needed to justify the Dreaming Ant search warrant -- police were forwarded a copy of the statement by WTAE-TV reporter Ashlie Hardway. The city's Computer Crimes Unit traced the e-mail's origins to the wireless network used by Dreaming Ant and Crazy Mocha.
Almost anyone nearby could have logged into that network -- even if they weren't a customer. But as the affidavit makes clear, police seized the computer equipment hoping to find a "media access control address," which identifies a computer logged into a network at any given time. MAC addresses can be changed by computer-savvy owners, but police are apparently hoping the address will fingerprint the machine, and its owner.
According to Detective James Glick, who is leading the investigation, police are seeking to charge the author with identity theft, trademark counterfeiting and fraud.
That approach mystifies some.
The press release "is parody protected by the First Amendment," says Walczak. "[The police] could get sued for First and Fourth Amendment violations here."
"It's a part of democratic free speech," agrees Pittsburgh City Councilor Bill Peduto, noting that people have created fake Twitter accounts using his name and image. "Is it frustrating? Yes. But it's also protected speech."
The offense of trademark counterfeiting, for one, is directed toward commercial activity, like selling bogus name-brand merchandise. Pennsylvania's counterfeiting law targets anyone who "knowingly manufactures, uses, displays, advertises, distributes, offers for sale, sells or possesses with intent to sell or distribute" items bearing a counterfeit trademark.
Identity theft cases, too, usually involve financial interest. "It should be more than you just using somebody else's name or symbol," says Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an online advocacy group. "It should be an attempt to take something of value."
And the hoaxer may not be the only one with something to lose. By seizing computer equipment, police have gained access to customer data ranging from movie-renting habits to Internet searches carried out by customers.
Should police spot something troubling, says John Burkoff, a University of Pittsburgh law professor, customers have little recourse -- even if they had nothing to do with the fake FOP release.
"If I'm lawfully looking for 'x' and come across 'y,' I can seize 'y,'" Burkoff says. "You have no privacy there."
Which is just another reason to urge police restraint, says Coney.
"[The police] are establishing a precedent here," she says. "Do you really want to go there? Do you want them to wander through a small country of data because they're looking for a particular tree?"
Not everyone is sympathetic to the hoax. Bram Reichbaum, who authors the Pittsburgh Comet blog, also received the forged press release, and posted it briefly online before realizing it was phony. "I feel used and upset," he says.
Reichbaum says it's wrong to categorize the release as satire, because it featured extra layers of deception: a phone number and e-mail account with auto-reply messages. "You don't set up extra traps with satire," he says. Had the hoax not been uncovered so quickly, he worries, it could have seriously misled the public.
"It was really reckless what [the creator of the press release] did," says Reichbaum
Reichbaum adds that he's willing to help police track down the author. As to concerns that police may be overstepping, he wrote CP in an e-mail, "I hope public safety is pursuing this scrupulously by the book, because otherwise that's just what douchenarchists always desire: to get under some cops' skin, provoke a splashy response, and engineer an even deeper crisis in public confidence."
But even if the release did damage that confidence, say critics, it's a matter for a civil lawsuit, not criminal charges.
Corynne McSherry, intellectual property director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, likens the FOP hoax to a high-profile case involving The Yes Men, a group of leftist provocateurs. In October 2009, the group held a bogus U.S. Chamber of Commerce "press conference," announcing that the business group was abandoning its opposition to climate-change bills. The Chamber sued the impostors, citing trademark and copyright infringement.
The EFF, a civil-liberties group that specializes in Internet issues, represents The Yes Men in that case; McSherry says the event was merely "a very effective form of political activism." But no one has been arrested in the matter -- and win or lose, The Yes Men will not be going to jail.
Which is as it should be, says Coney, of EPIC. To justify a criminal prosecution, she says, "there should be a level of threat -- someone has been injured or killed, or something of value has been taken."
In a matter like this, Coney adds, "You file a civil case, drag a person into court."
"To see [the police] use resources this way over bruised feelings -- this doesn't look good."
Chris Potter contributed to this report.