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Sheriff’s Office under fire in Twitter cyber-stalking probe


The school district employee recently cleared by prosecutors of a cyber-stalking charge is now questioning the claims her accuser, School Board Vice Chairman Tiffany Justice, made to Sheriff’s deputies, who used that information to launch their criminal investigation.

Armed with Justice’s claims and a pair of disparaging social-media posts, Sheriff’s Maj. Eric Flowers obtained a subpoena that forced Twitter to reveal the author’s identity – a tactic Vicki Sidles said was an unnecessary violation of her Fourth Amendment rights to privacy and unreasonable search and seizure.

“They invaded my privacy with no probable cause, with no evidence of criminal activity whatsoever,” Sidles said last weekend. “The entire investigation was based on a false pretense. There was no ongoing harassment, as Tiffany Justice claimed.

“The State Attorney’s Office issued a subpoena based on two tweets on back-to-back days in January, and the Sheriff’s Office used that subpoena to reveal my identity,” she added. “Now, that information is being used against me in another investigation.”

The second investigation is being conducted by the Indian River County School District, where Sidles works in the purchasing department.

The two tweets that prompted the Sheriff’s Office’s investigation implied Justice was engaged in an inappropriate relationship with former Superintendent Mark Rendell, who left the district last week to become the principal at Cocoa Beach Junior/Senior High School.

When reached by phone, Justice, who has denied any such relationship, declined to comment about Sidles’ allegations.

The Sheriff’s Office conducted a four-month investigation and twice asked the State Attorney’s Office to issue arrest warrants for Sidles. Both times the requests were denied because prosecutors found no evidence that a crime had been committed.

Even though she was not charged by prosecutors, Sidles’ fate with the school district remains in limbo.

Sidles was sent home from work on April 17 and was suspended with pay, pending the outcome of a district investigation. Though she hasn’t been told what she has been accused of, her banishment coincided with the conclusion of the Sheriff’s Office’s case.

“That’s probably not a coincidence,” said Sidles, who works as a buyer in the district’s purchasing department. “But what are they investigating? I haven’t done anything wrong.”

Knowledgeable sources confirmed last week the district has hired an outside law firm to conduct an investigation that would not have been possible without the subpoena Flowers sought and obtained from the State Attorney’s Office.

“Without that subpoena, the school district wouldn’t know who posted those tweets,” Sidles said. “They wouldn’t know who I am. They’d have nothing.”

The district might not have anything, anyway.

School Board Policy 4231, which governs “Outside Activities of Support Staff,” states: “The constitutional right to express political and other opinions as citizens is reserved to all employees.”

Sidles said her tweets, posted under the Twitter handle “BigBear89,” were protected not only by board policy but also her right to free speech under the First Amendment.

“I was posting as a private citizen, not as an employee,” Sidles said, adding that she has sought legal counsel and is prepared to fight any punitive action imposed by the district. “I never identified myself as an employee. I hid my identity so no one would know I was an employee.”

Sidles said she also is exploring other legal options – and seeking answers to questions, including:

• Why did Flowers, the third-highest-ranking member of the Sheriff’s Office, get involved in a misdemeanor case?

• Did Flowers pursue Justice’s complaint of “ongoing harassment,” which was based on only two tweets one day apart, because they’re friendly and Justice has endorsed his candidacy for sheriff in the 2020 election?

• Why didn’t Flowers and Justice, after Twitter revealed Sidles’ identity, simply ask her to stop tweeting about a rumored, improper relationship between Justice and Rendell?

Sidles also wants to know why the Sheriff’s Office and State Attorney’s Office didn’t try to establish whether there was probable cause that a crime had been committed before forcing Twitter to out her.

“Tiffany Justice was not in any danger,” Sidles said. “She was never threatened. She went to her friend and used him to find out who was posting on Twitter. But how did knowing who I was help their investigation? They already had the tweets.”

As for Justice’s claims that she was suffering “substantial emotional distress” – one of the elements necessary to establish a criminal cyber-stalking charge – Sidles referred to the affidavits filed by Sheriff’s Det. Aaron Scranton in his attempts to obtain an arrest warrant.

According to the two affidavits, Justice told Scranton Sidles’ Twitter posts “caused her anxiety and embarrassment, as well as the inability to sleep well at night.” She said the tweets “affected her marriage,” that her children had seen them and were upset, and that they hindered her ability to “effectively perform the functions of her job as an elected School Board member.”

However, Scranton determined that Justice had not sought medical assistance or been prescribed any anti-anxiety or antidepressant medication to ease her symptoms.

“Because Mrs. Justice was claiming to be so emotionally distraught, but had not sought the assistance of a physician or medical professional, I asked if she had sought counseling or therapy,” Scranton wrote in his report. “Mrs. Justice told me she had seen a life coach for several months, since the beginning of the posts.”

Scranton wrote that Sidles told him the rumors about Justice and Rendell “being romantically involved” had been buzzing for years – a claim he later confirmed.

“During my investigation,” he wrote, “I have spoken with numerous employees of the Indian River County school district who stated they, too, have heard the rumors for years.”

In a supplemental report that accompanied Scranton’s second affidavit, Flowers wrote that Justice denied the rumors, saying the “allegations of sexual misconduct were all lies being spread about her.”

For his part, Flowers said Justice’s endorsement of his campaign had “absolutely nothing” to do with his involvement in the case.

“I get calls – not just me, but all of us on the sheriff’s command staff – because we’re out in the public, people knows us and they reach out to us,” Flowers said. “That’s exactly what we want: Know us before you need us. I’ll take reports from anybody, no matter who they are.

“My involvement with this one had nothing to do with Tiffany Justice being a School Board member or endorsing my campaign,” he added. “She called with a complaint, said she was afraid, didn’t know why this was happening or who was doing it. So I looked into it.

“I’d do the same for anyone.”

Flowers also said it was not uncommon for him, despite his rank, to investigate misdemeanors.

“My badge works just like everyone else’s,” he said. “What I did in this case was not outside the scope of what I do on a regular basis. Once it appeared a crime might’ve been committed, I turned it over to our detectives. I didn’t have any personal interest in this situation.”

Flowers said Justice “wanted to press charges” when Sidles was identified by Twitter, and “she was very adamant about it” – even when Scranton expressed doubt about the ability to make a case.

Sidles said the only two tweets that referenced the rumored relationship between Justice and Rendell were posted Jan. 15 and 16.

“There was nothing in October, November or December, then only those two tweets in January,” Sidles said, adding that most of her schools-related Twitter posts contained commentary about the board, its meetings and decisions that impacted district policy. “So how can she claim there was ongoing harassment? How could Flowers request a subpoena based on two tweets, and why would the State Attorney’s Office issue one?”

Assistant State Attorney Chris Taylor said prosecutors often use subpoenas as investigative tools and that probable cause is not required to issue them.

“Law enforcement agencies need only believe that the evidence they’re seeking is relevant to a criminal investigation, so it doesn’t really matter if the allegations are supported by probable cause,” Taylor said. “The standard is lower.”

Sidles resumed posting tweets that referenced the rumored relationship between Justice and Rendell on March 29, and continued into April – until Scranton showed up at her place of work.

She said she was scheduled to meet with her attorney again Tuesday.