Colorado Supreme Court Says Tattered Cover Doesn't Have to Turn Over Customer Records

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The Colorado Supreme Court ruled on April 8 that Denver's Tattered Cover Book Store does not have to turn over customer records that had been sought by local law enforcement officials, who had argued that the information would assist in a case involving the manufacture of methamphetamines.

"[W]e believe the Court’s opinion sets an important precedent for readers, bookstores, and library patrons throughout the country, who can now look to Colorado law for guidance when the First Amendment rights of readers collide with the desires of law enforcement," said Joyce Meskis, owner of the Tattered Cover, after learning of the decision.

"This is an important victory for bookstores around the country," concurred Chris Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE), which has been supporting the Tattered Cover's case financially, and which filed two amicus briefs on the store's behalf. "It strongly affirms the fact that protecting the privacy of bookstore records is essential to preserve free speech."

The court ruled that the state constitution requires that those seeking bookstore records must demonstrate that the need for specific customer purchase records "is sufficiently compelling to outweigh the harm likely caused to constitutional interests by the execution of the search." The decision noted that "applying this balancing test, the Supreme Court concludes that the law enforcement need for the book purchase record in this case was not sufficiently compelling to outweigh the harm that would likely follow from execution of the search warrant."

Further, the court stated that, in the future, a search warrant would only be issued after a court hearing, where both law enforcement officials and the bookstore are represented. From the start of the case, the Tattered Cover has argued that the search warrant was issued before other, more appropriate, legal avenues had been pursued, or before a court had been given the opportunity to consider the First Amendment issues involved.

In reversing the decision of a Colorado district court, which had ruled last October that Tattered Cover must turn over customer-related information, the Colorado Supreme Court strongly affirmed the First Amendment protection afforded both a bookstore and its customers. In the 51-page decision, the court stated that it "recognizes that both the United States and Colorado Constitution protect the rights of the general public to purchase books anonymously, without governmental interference," adding that the use of a search warrant to learn which books a customer has purchased "implicates fundamental rights."