TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - A Leon County circuit judge is slated Wednesday to hear arguments about whether the Florida Department of Law Enforcement should return property to fired state Department of Health analyst Rebekah Jones after agents searched her home and hauled away computer equipment last month.
Judge John Cooper will hold a hearing on a motion by Jones’ attorneys to force FDLE to return the property amid a broader lawsuit that alleges the agency violated Jones’ First Amendment and due-process rights and conducted an unlawful search and seizure, according to court documents.
Jones has drawn national attention because of her accusations that Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration has manipulated data about the COVID-19 pandemic. She was fired last year and set up a competing COVID-19 online dashboard to display data about the virus.
The FDLE conducted the search at Jones’ house Dec. 7 after an investigation allegedly linked her home address to a Nov. 10 message sent on an internal Department of Health multi-user account.
"It’s time to speak up before another 17,000 people are dead. You know this is wrong. You don’t have to be part of this. Be a hero. Speak out before it’s too late," the message from an unidentified sender said.
But Jones filed the lawsuit Dec. 20, naming as defendants FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen, Agent Noel Pratts and an unidentified agent listed as John Doe. The lawsuit alleges that a search warrant used to enter her home "was obtained in bad faith and with no legitimate object or purpose."
Three days after the lawsuit was filed, Jones’ attorneys filed a motion seeking to force the FDLE to return all property seized "and to erase or otherwise destroy any copies already made." As in the underlying lawsuit, Jones’ attorneys contended in the motion that she was not responsible for the Nov. 10 message on the Department of Health account.
"The property at issue is plaintiff’s personal property, including audio-visual media protected by the First Amendment and plaintiff’s attorney/client privileged communications," the motion said. "The property is not the fruit of any possible criminal activity. It is not being held as evidence of any crime. This is so because the crime alleged is not a crime at all and there is no probable cause linking plaintiff to the alleged activity."
A court docket early Monday did not include a response by the FDLE to the lawsuit or to the motion. But DeSantis and Swearingen publicly criticized Jones last month.
"This individual became known, because she alleged a conspiracy theory at the Department of Health, which is unfounded and never proven at all," DeSantis said. "She was fired because she wasn’t doing a good job. None of the stuff that she said was ever proven. You’d think that would be the end of it. Obviously, she’s got issues. On this situation, there was an intrusion of a very sensitive system. It’s an emergency alert system. If somebody gets a hold of that, they can do a lot of damage."