EAST MEADOW, LONG ISLAND (PIX11) – In the wake of a half dozen armed police officers showing up at the home of a man whose internet searches raised his former employer’s suspicion, an authority on the First Amendment is issuing a warning.
Specifically, officers showed up Wednesday morning at the East Meadow home of freelance magazine writer Michele Catalano, 50. She was away at work at the time, but she wrote about what happened on her blog at Medium.com.
Her husband was home, and he let the police in, without them showing a search warrant.
“There were like six cars here, with the agents in all the gear and everything,” said Josephine Soberalski, a neighbor who watched the whole scene unfold. “They just monopolized the whole street, and went through the whole house,” Soberalski said.
According to Catalano’s blog posting, the interviewing cops asked her husband about possible searches that had been made online for pressure cookers and backpacks. Catalano assumed that the agents were from the Joint Terrorism Task Force, since they did not clearly identify their law enforcement affiliation.
They also did not specify where the internet searches in which they were interested had taken place, so Catalano concluded that they’d happened on computers in her home.
They had not.
The searches were for the same type of items used in the Boston Marathon bombings that killed 3 people, and injured 264, and they had occurred at the computer business where Catalano’s husband had worked recently, but from which he had been laid off.
Those details about the cause for the police action did not come from Catalano’s blog. Instead, it came from the Suffolk County Police Department.
As it turned out, its intelligence detectives had made the visit to Catalano’s home, and their action was the result of a tip they had received from her husband’s former office.
“The former employee’s computer searches took place on this employee’s workplace computer,” the Suffolk County Police Department said in a statement. “On that computer, the employee searched the terms ‘pressure cooker bombs’ and ‘backpacks.'”
After the armed officers entered the home, one of the detectives asked if the family owned a pressure cooker. The husband said no, but did tell investigators that the family had a rice cooker, which his wife, Catalano, used primarily to cook quinoa.
“What the hell is quinoa?” the investigator asked, according to Catalano’s account. Quinoa is a grain that’s native to South America, but is popular in the U.S., especially at health food stores.
Catalano made her blog post on Thursday, saying that federal agents had come to her home. By Friday, she had added to her post that she’d been informed that it was Suffolk County detectives that had arrived, rather than the Joint Terrorism Task Force.
Late Friday morning, PIX11 News encountered Catalano and her husband, as they were leaving their home in her car, to run errands. “I’m giving no interviews right now,” she said.
PIX11 News attempted to ask Catalano and her husband, whose name she never disclosed in her blog post, what their reaction was to the police action.
They chose not to speak, even though their adult daughter, who was not home at the time that police arrived, told PIX11 News off-camera that she’d felt violated. “I wasn’t there, but they searched my room,” she said.
Anthony Collelouri, a Long Island First Amendment attorney, said that Catalano’s family should feel violated. “I don’t have a problem with [the authorities monitoring],” Collelouri said, “but to go there with a SWAT team… it’s not fair to the family.”
Colleluori is also the former president of the Nassau County Criminal Bar Association. He views the Catalano case as a broad warning to everyone.
“There is no expectation of privacy on the internet, on your cellphone or your iPad,” Colleluori said.
He made two recommendations for people to use in order to increase their protections from intrusion. He advised against using Google as a search engine, since Google tracks users’ searches and makes that information available to the federal government. Instead, Colleluori recommended Duck Duck Go, which doesn’t track users’ searches.
He also pointed out that police are required to secure a search warrant in order to enter a home. None was produced at Catalano’s home.