Whistleblower Rebekah Jones wins dismissal- at a price.
More than a dozen police arrived early in the morning on December 7, 2020 to the Tallahassee home of Florida scientist and whistleblower Rebekah Jones.
In the disturbing video released by both Jones and state police, an officer wielding a sledgehammer banged on Jones’ front door, falsely claiming to have a warrant, though police did not produce one until three hours after arriving at Jones’ home.
One officer pointed a gun at Jones’ head through a window next to the front door and demanded she open it. She complied, hands raised, calm.
Then police entered the home and drew more weapons, pointing them at Jones’ husband, 11-year-old son and two-year-old daughter as they came down the stairs.
Police later lied and released an official statement claiming “at no point were guns drawn” during the raid before Jones released home surveillance video showing at least six officers with guns drawn on her and her family.
The dramatic episode dominated American news for weeks and outrage from the public, members of Congress, the scientific community, celebrities and technology advocates alike catapulted Jones from Florida cause célèbre to international hero.
The harrowing details sent shockwaves across a nation in political turmoil at a time when scientists were already reluctant to speak out.
Jones and her attorneys sued the police for the armed raid under federal civil rights statutes.
The day after a Tallahassee judge ordered Florida State Police to either charge Rebekah Jones with a crime or return the equipment taken from her home, police charged the 31-year-old scientist with a third-degree felony.
Using Florida Statutes 815.06 2A, Jones was charged with “misuse of computer systems without authorization or exceeding authorized use.”
The state alleged Jones sent a text message to former coworkers from a state server that read, “It’s time to speak up before another 17,000 people are dead. You know this is wrong. You don’t have to be a part of this. Be a hero. Speak out before it’s too late.”
Months later, a coordinated disinformation campaign targeting Jones aimed to question her credibility, undermine her efforts to track COVID-19 at the national level, and sought to paint Jones in a light that would justify to others pointing weapons at her and her family. A scientist with no criminal record. A whistleblower with an active case against the state of Florida at the time state police raided her home.
The case against Jones is now closed and the state agreed to dismiss the charge in exchange for $20,000 and an admission of guilt, though even the agreement has come with its own controversy.
The text message that caused an armed raid on a family
The only connection between Jones and the text message sent November 10, 2020 was provided by one of the state employees involved in Jones’ whistleblower complaint. He personally provided an IP address he claimed was responsible for sending the message, according to the lead investigator on the case. The IP address belonged to Jones’ residence in Tallahassee.
Using IP addresses in criminal cases comes with its own limitations, especially when Jones often worked from home and thus the state would have records of her IP address from her time of employment.
However, court documents show that the company which provides the application used to send the text, ReadyOp, does not keep and had no record of the end user IP address of who sent the text.
The list of IP addresses accessing the application on the same day the text was sent was submitted as evidence by police as an excel spreadsheet with no other validation or corroboration.
The state server showed six different computers logging into the ReadyOp system using the same user ID during the period the message was sent, any one of which could have been responsible for sending it.
Police only sought a warrant from Comcast for the owner of two of the six IP addresses, however. One led to Jones’ home.
The other IP address led to the home of Tom Liberti, who was the Bureau Chief at the Florida Department of Health at the time the text was sent. Liberti received national recognition for his work on HIV/AIDS and was a known activist for the LGBT community. Police did not follow any leads or even interview Liberti who, as a researcher in the HIV/AIDS office, would not normally use or otherwise have access to the state’s ReadyOp emergency response application.
Additionally, in the days after the raid, experts found that the whole state used one username and password to access the server, which was available publicly online in at least seven places.
Forensic analysis and criminal charge
Forensic analysis of Jones’ computer was completed on December 8, 2020, but showed no evidence of her computer accessing the ReadyOp website or platform, according to discovery data provided by the state attorney’s office.
A warrant to CenturyLink issued December 11, 2020 requesting a log of incidents in which Jones’ IP address accessed the state’s servers when the text was sent returned with “No Records Found.”
On the same day, police sought access to cloud storage accounts Jones had connected to her computer, including Dropbox, Google Drive and OneDrive.
What was supposed to be a limited search under the supervision of a third party exclusively for evidence of a text turned into state police gaining access to Jones’ email accounts and passwords, PIN codes, all images and videos in her cloud storage space, and her communication records for the entire month preceding the raid.
What the state found and what Jones was eventually charged with possessing was a document titled “Roster_contacts.xlsx.”
Emails obtained from The Miami Herald revealed that Jones had received that document from officials at the Florida Department of Health - legally - no fewer than three times during her time working at the state.
When state police eventually charged Jones - the day after a judge gave an unfavorable ruling to the state in her lawsuit against the police for the raid - they misrepresented the timeline on how they accessed what and when.
Police claimed the “Roster_contacts.xlsx” file was downloaded November 10, 2020 (the day of the text), but none of the warrants returned showed Jones accessed the server on that date. Police also claimed they requested subpoenas for her cloud storage drive after finding the contact roster on December 17, 2020, but those warrants were signed and issued December 11, 2020.
Jones never denied having the contact roster on her backup storage drives, and when the state required her to “admit guilt” as part of the state’s agreement to dismiss the case against her, Jones issued the following statement in the agreement:
“Following my employment at the Department of Health, I possessed a contact roster of state employees.”
On social media, Jones added, “At no point did I say I obtained that document illegally or that I had no right or reason to have it.”
The contact roster Jones was charged with a third-degree felony for possessing is available to anyone who submits a public records request to the state, as it only included the names, email addresses and office phone numbers of state employees and contractors assigned to the COVID-19 response effort.
Van Buren vs. the United States and whistleblower status
Adding to the controversy of Jones’ political persecution , the statute Jones was charged under was ruled unconstitutional in the June 2021 Supreme Court Van Buren case.
The Supreme Court decision settled continued controversy involving the “unauthorized use or exceeding authorized access” of computer systems under 18 U.S.C. § 1030(a)(2), which had resulted in criminal charges with lengthy prison sentences for any person who violated a company’s Terms of Service.
Aaron Swartz’ case is perhaps the most high-profile example of the abuse of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act in the United States. Swartz faced 35 years in federal prison and $1 million in fines for downloading academic journals using a username and password MIT provided him.
Swartz rejected a plea offer to serve six months in prison and committed suicide two days later. Swartz was considered a prodigy in programming, developed RSS, was the architect behind Creative Commons, Markdown, and Reddit. And the federal government sought to send him to prison for nearly all of his adult life for downloading academic journals from a server he was granted access to.
The Van Buren decision came too late for Swartz, who committed suicide in 2013. The Van Buren case nullified the law used to target both Swartz and Jones in June 2021. Jones’ lawyers filed a motion to dismiss based on the Van Buren ruling, but the judge refused to even hear arguments on the merits.
Instead, the state continued with its case against Jones, who received legal whistleblower protection status two days before the US Supreme Court ruled on Van Buren.
Plea Offers and Dismissal
Prosecutors offered a plea deal to Jones in March 2021. The deal would have required her to plead “no contest” and agree to probation for two years. Jones refused. The state continued making offers with differing terms of “adjudication withheld,” but Jones stated she would “accept nothing less than a dismissal.”
Prosecutors then offered a deferred prosecution agreement in June 2022 that would have resulted in the case being dismissed after one year, but added requirements for admitting guilt, along with other terms that Jones’ lawyers were willing to negotiate the language on, according to leaked documents published by Grant Stern.
After Jones won the Democratic primary for Florida’s 1st Congressional District in August 2022, the State Attorney’s office in Leon County made an offer that legal experts and other Florida prosecutors described as “bullshit,” “politically charged,” and “coercive.”
The new dismissal offer came contingent upon Jones admitting guilt, apologizing to the Florida Department of Health, destroying evidence related to her whistleblower case (evidence and data the state falsely stated she never had access to), dropping her whistleblower case, $21,000 paid to state police, and an agreement to never work with or for the state of Florida again, among other retaliatory conditions.
In a now infamous and viral video, Jones told prosecutors: “Go fuck yourself.”
Just weeks after Jones’ congressional campaign ended in a loss to Republican Matt Gaetz, prosecutors changed their minds yet again and removed most of the incendiary language from the dismissal agreement.
Jones stated, “after the election and everything that’s happened these past two years, my family and I just want this part of my life to be over. I’m tired. I’m broke. A dismissal is still a dismissal.”
When the time came to finalize the agreement, however, the prosecutor assigned to the case, Georgia Cappleman, switched the terms and forged Jones’ signature on a new agreement that neither Jones nor her lawyers had ever seen.
Capplemen, when asked about the incident via email, confirmed she copied Jones’ signature from a previous document and pasted it into the new agreement, but added “I’m saying that what I did is not a crime.”
Jones’ lawyer informed Cappleman that they would not agree to the new terms in the document with Jones’ forged signature and wanted to return to the original agreement or go to trial.
Cappleman instructed Jones’ lawyer to “cross out” any language they didn’t like, which included restrictions on gun use, additional fines and fees, unannounced home visits by police, limits on travel, and more extreme and invasive measures.
Jones said she did not contest language her lawyer informed her was standard, like randomized drug testing and mental health treatment, because she regularly saw a therapist due to the trauma of the raid and had no concerns about passing a drug test.
The agreement was signed on December 7, 2022 - two years exactly since the raid on her home. The agreement was processed the next day, and it took less than two days for conservative media outlets to falsely claim Jones had “pled guilty” to a felony.
The case has been closed in Leon County and the result is a complete dismissal, but hoards of anonymous accounts online continue to assault any mention of Jones on the platform, falsely claiming she took a “plea deal,” which she demonstrably did not.
When pressed about what level of influence Governor Ron DeSantis’ office had in Jones’ prolonged prosecution, Cappleman declined to answer and instead told the reporter not to contact her again.
Jones walks away with a dismissal (at a price) and after nearly three years of persecution by the state of Florida comes out with no criminal record, no guilty plea, no adjudication withheld, no plea of no contest. Jones managed to best a radical and increasingly dangerous Governor with Presidential aspirations at each turn.
She lived to tell the tale. The problem is hardly anyone is still listening.
“When there’s so much disinformation online, when any mention or reference to me is met with dozens of single-purpose hate accounts defaming and attacking me, people give up on the truth,” Jones said. “Truth got me into this, truth got me out of this, and truth will be the anecdote to these crimes against reality going forward.”