Maricopa County law enforcement violated the constitutional rights of this newspaper's readers in October. Using secret grand jury subpoenas, County Attorney Andrew Thomas sought records that would reveal the identity of anyone who'd looked at New Times online in the past four years. When the paper's leaders revealed the grand jury probe in a cover story, sheriff's deputies arrested them.
The assault on New Times began in 2004 when the paper published Sheriff Joe Arpaio's address as part of an investigation into his hidden commercial real estate transactions. Arpaio demanded that the newspaper be prosecuted under an arcane statute that makes it illegal to publish law enforcement officers' addresses in cyberspace, even though that data is readily available on government Web sites and is perfectly legal to publish on newsprint.
Thomas responded by appointing a special prosecutor, who demanded not only the records and e-mails of the paper's writers and editors -- but also sought sensitive information on the Internet-viewing habits of our readers. On October 18, New Times published a cover story revealing the invasive subpoenas.
That story violated grand jury secrecy statutes, but the revelations in the article, compounded by the subsequent arrest of Village Voice Executive Editor Michael Lacey and CEO Jim Larkin, sparked public outrage. County Attorney Thomas fired the special prosecutor and dropped all charges. He also abandoned the Arpaio-inspired probe of the paper.As the smoke began to clear, this newspaper began a series, "Target Practice." The project sprang from a fundamental question: Why did law enforcement -- the sheriff and the county attorney -- believe they could force a newspaper to reveal the identities and habits of the publication's readers?
Our investigation has made one thing clear: Maricopa County's sheriff has a vivid history of ignoring the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. He's trampled the rights of prisoners, political enemies, and media critics. In partnership with the county attorney, the pair have expanded their enemies list to include the judiciary and immigrants. Private citizens and their Internet-viewing records were merely the latest victims in a long line.
"Target Practice" seeks to explain how we arrived at this moment.