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Charges leveled against man after Craigslist postings

12:56 PM, Nov 29, 2008   |    comments
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Larimer County District Attorney Larry Abrahamson charged a 40-year-old Loveland man last month with two counts of criminal libel for alleged posts he made about his former girlfriend and her attorney on Craigslist.org's "Rants and Rave" section.

Criminal libel is a rarely used, 1880s-era law aimed at publishing statements meant to ridicule or inspire public hatred.

It's a class-six felony and carries a punishment of up to 18 months in prison.

"It's been a number of years since I recall seeing it," Abrahamson said. "It's not a charge you see a lot of."

The case in Loveland began when a woman approached the Loveland Police Department in December 2007 about multiple postings made about her between November and December 2007.

At least one post suggests that she traded sexual acts for legal services from her attorney, according to court records.

There's also mention about a child services visit made because of an injury found on her child.

Police obtained search warrants for records from Craigslist.org and other Web sites and identified J.P. Weichel as the suspect, the former boyfriend of the woman who shares a child with her.

In August, detectives confronted Weichel at his workplace, where police said he admitted to the postings because he was "just venting," according to the court file.

Weichel did not comment to Loveland Connection about the case.

Libel commonly is seen as a civil case and attorney's working for the Colorado Press Association have argued to federal district courts that the state's criminal libel charge is not constitutional, said attorney Steve Zansberg, who specializes in First Amendment law for Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz law firm in Denver.

Zansberg argued that the criminal law is easier to prove than seeking damages in a civil case because the defendant must prove their innocence by showing that the statements are true.

In civil cases, the victim must show damages have occurred, which Zansberg said is more difficult to prove and puts the burden of proof on the plaintiff, not the defendant.

Zansberg said the criminal law is outdated; it was written in the 1800s with other laws meant to preserve the public peace, such as outlawing dueling and unlawful discarding of an ice box, according to the state statute book.

The criminal law also is unclear about stating opinions and is written so dead people can be victims of criminal libel, Zansberg said.

But Abrahamson disagreed with claims that the law is unconstitutional based on the burden of proof.

He said the prosecutor's burden of proof is beyond a reason of doubt, which he said is a much higher standard of proof than proving damages.

Criminal libel has come up in recent years in Colorado as well.

A man in Durango recently was prosecuted on several counts of the criminal libel and a man in Pueblo faces a criminal libel charge relative to a doctored photo of a woman that prosecutors believe was disseminated to ridicule the woman according to reports.

Possibly the best-known criminal libel case in Colorado came out of Greeley beginning in 2003, when the Weld County District Attorney's Office pursued criminal libel charges against Thomas Mink.

Mink published an Internet-based publication called Howling Pig, which was critical of the University of Northern Colorado.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, or ACLU, filed suit in a federal district court to stop the investigation, which also sparked the movement from the Colorado Press Association to deem the criminal libel law unconstitutional.

Those efforts fell apart when the Weld County District Attorney's Office dropped the case, Zansberg said.

Still, Zansberg said, prosecutors seeking criminal libel cases could have a "chilling" effect on speech in Colorado, particularly over the Internet, where there's ample opportunity to voice opinions.

Whether that means more criminal libel cases in the future, Abrahamson said it's difficult to know.

It's really up to the police departments to pursue the cases, but with greater opportunity to commit the crime, more cases could arise, Abrahamson said.

"It's hard to say. We have to take a look at what's out there. Obviously, it would have to be brought to our attention to look at," he said. "But I'm not saying at this point that it opens Pandora's Box on filing libel charges."

Weichel's libel case continues in court next month.

(Copyright Loveland Connection. All Rights Reserved.)

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