The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit took just eight hours last week to rule against St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Randy Smith in a civil rights lawsuit that alleged Smith had a former employee arrested for making disparaging comments about him in private emails.

Former deputy Jerry Rogers sued the sheriff and two of his deputies, Danny Culpeper and Keith Canizaro, after he was arrested in 2019 on a misdemeanor charge of criminal defamation. Rogers, who was a deputy with the sheriff’s office from 1998 to 2009, and is currently a federal investigator for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, was strip-searched, jailed and forced to post $3,500 in bail, according to the lawsuit. He had criticized the sheriff in emails to a political rival, among others, for failing to solve the high-profile murder of Nanette Krentel, calling the investigators “clueless.”

The 22nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office that oversees St. Tammany and Washington parishes had warned the sheriff that such an action would be unconstitutional, but Smith went ahead with the arrest anyway, saying it was “very important” to him, according to the lawsuit. The Louisiana Department of Justice declined to prosecute.

If the case goes to trial, the core question now will be how much Rogers wins, not if, said his attorney William Most.

“This ruling is a lightning bolt that has struck three law enforcement officers who tried to stand taller than the United States Constitution,” Most said in a statement.

Krentel was shot to death in July 2017 in the Lacombe home she shared with her husband, Stephen Krentel, who was the St. Tammany Parish fire chief at the time. The house was set ablaze and Krentel’s body was found in the ashen rubble. The murder remains unsolved but has received widespread coverage both locally and nationally.

Like much of the public, Rogers closely followed the case and was highly critical of the sheriff’s failure to find Krentel’s killer. He emailed those criticisms to Krentel’s sister, calling the lead investigator “clueless” and a “stone cold rookie.” The sheriff heard about the correspondence, secured a warrant that cited a statute number for a non-existent crime, and obtained Rogers’ emails, according to court documents.

While searching through the emails, the sheriff’s office saw communications between Rogers and Smith’s opponents in his upcoming reelection campaign and began investigating Smith for criminal defamation. On Sept. 13, 2019, Sgt. Canizaro met with the district attorney’s office to discuss the case. He was told that public officials are not immune from criticism and that such an arrest would likely be unconstitutional.

Three days later, Assistant District Attorney Collin Sims called the sheriff’s office to, once again, assert it was “unconstitutional to arrest Jerry Rogers.” Smith dismissed the warning and that same afternoon, instead of issuing Rogers a summons for the misdemeanor crime of criminal defamation, sheriff’s deputies arrested, handcuffed and booked him into the St. Tammany Parish Prison where he was strip-searched, according to the lawsuit.

Fifteen minutes later, the sheriff’s office issued a press release announcing Rogers’ arrest, and then sent a “formal complaint” to Rogers’ employer, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the lawsuit says.

During his deposition, Most asked Smith whether he thinks there’s “any problem with a law enforcement officer obtaining emails with his political opponents through a criminal search warrant and then publicizing that fact to the press?

You don’t see any problem with that?”

Smith replied, “No, sir.”

The district attorney’s office recused itself from the case, leaving it to the Louisiana Department of Justice, which declined to prosecute. “A member of the attorney general’s office later explained to the FBI that the STPSO detectives were ‘idiots’ for using the criminal defamation statute to arrest a person,” according to court documents.

In May 2022, Judge Triche Milazzo of the Eastern District of Louisiana ruled in favor of Rogers, dismissing the sheriff’s claims of qualified immunity. The sheriff’s subsequent appeal to the 5th Circuit was shot down in a unanimous ruling in less than eight hours.

During their depositions, the defendants said they would do it all over again.

“Knowing what you know now if presented with the same facts with regard to Jerry Rogers, would you still arrest him for criminal defamation?” Most asked.

Smith answered, “Yes, I would.” 

The sheriff was reelected in 2019 after the arrest of Rogers and is currently seeking a third term.

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Before coming to Verite, Richard A. Webster spent the past two and a half years as a member of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network. He investigated allegations of abuse against the Jefferson Parish...