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Former Florida Department of Health whistle-blower Rebekah Jones has moved to dismiss her lawsuit against the Florida Department of Law Enforcement that alleged that the state violated her constitutional rights when agents raided her Tallahassee townhome in December.
Jones’ lawyer, Richard E. Johnson, said she could not continue the case because of a pending criminal case against her but will refile the lawsuit when that case is resolved.
“You can’t do a criminal case and a civil case at the same time,’’ Johnson said Tuesday. “The criminal case has to go first. It’s better to dismiss it so you can start over with the facts as they exist at the time of refiling.”
Jones, 31, was arrested on Jan. 17 and accused of breaking into a state messaging system and encouraging people to “speak up” about COVID-19. State police accused her of unauthorized access to the state computer system and downloading a spreadsheet with the contact information of more than 19,000 Floridians who provided email addresses and phone numbers to the state “for emergency contact purposes.”
The third-degree felony carries a sentence of up to five years in prison.
In May, the health department fired Jones for insubordination, and she subsequently filed a whistle-blower complaint against the state and established her own data dashboard for COVID-19 statistics. She has since become one of the most prominent critics of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ coronavirus response.
Jones denies she was responsible for the Nov. 10 message on the emergency operations system. The message, obtained by the Tampa Bay Times, urged state employees dealing with the coronavirus pandemic 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.”
On Dec. 7, the state searched her Tallahassee home and seized her computers, cellphones and flash drives. Jones then sued FDLE alleging that the basis of the search was “a sham” designed to punish her for speaking out against DeSantis for ”refusing to falsify statistics on a ‘dashboard’ she had created for [the Department of Health].”
During the first hearing in Jones’ civil lawsuit on Jan. 14, Leon County Circuit Court Judge John Cooper said he couldn’t decide whether FDLE should be forced to return Jones’ computer equipment until he learns whether authorities intend to charge her with a crime.
The next day, FDLE issued a warrant for Jones’ arrest. The warrant alleged that the computers show evidence that the device found in Jones’ home accessed the state messaging system twice on Nov. 10 and included an Excel spreadsheet with the contact information of 19,182 people across the state who were included in the emergency operations network. The list is the Department of Health’s “intellectual property,” according to FDLE, but does not appear to include confidential information.
Jones, who now lives in Washington, D.C., turned herself in on Jan. 17, spent a night in Leon County jail, and was released on $2,500 bond.
The civil case, which was filed in in Leon County circuit court, was later moved to federal court, where the motion to dismiss was filed.
Johnson said Jones was dismissing the lawsuit “without prejudice” for practical reasons, because two cases cannot move simultaneously. But, he said, Jones intends to resume the lawsuit when the criminal case ends.
“We’re going to have the arrest and the things associated with the arrest at the center of the complaint,’’ he said.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at email@example.com and @MaryEllenKlas