Anonymous postcards may not have been legal

Published 4:52 pm Thursday, January 25, 2007

The post cards sent to Pearl River County voters prior to last week’s hearing on Central Landfill may have been illegal campaign literature under Mississippi state law.

Printed political material must follow certain guidelines to be legal under Mississippi law, according to the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office.

The person and or organization could be charged with a general misdemeanor if the name of the author, printer and publisher are absent and at least two credible citizens file affidavits.

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“Mississippi law does require any person or organization who has campaign literature printed ‘designed to influence voters for or against any candidate at an election’ to identify themselves and have their name printed on that campaign literature,” said Jim Hood, Mississippi Attorney General.

Both Supervisor Bettye Stockstill of Supervisor’s District Five and Supervisor Larry Davis of Supervisor’s District 3 had qualified for the elections coming up later this year before the postcards were postmarked, said Vickie Hariel, Circuit Clerk of Pearl River County.

Charges in such cases don’t stop just with the author of the material, however. The printing company also is required to put its identification code on the material in order to track its origin and failure to do that is illegal, said an attorney at the Mississippi Attorney General’s office.

Not to do so is in violation of the Mississippi election code laws 23-15- 897 and 23-15-899, Hood said.

Mississippi law as set forth in 23-15-899 simply states that there must be identification of the source of material, publisher and printer code on the printed document, and 23-15 -897 applies when a person is a candidate during a election year, according to a source at the Attorney General’s Office.

“The willful and knowing violation of these statutes is a misdemeanor,” Hood said.

“A general misdemeanor charge is a minor criminal charge that can carry a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail,” said Brent Brumley, an attorney in private practice in Jackson.

Under the state election laws, if the individuals named in the material have qualified for an upcoming election, then the individual and/or organization responsible for the printed material can be prosecuted, said Brumley. Anybody is allowed to file an affidavit saying that a crime has been committed but a Judge can decide not to issue a warrant, said Cheryl Johnson, Pearl River County prosecutor.

Two weeks ago registered voters in Pearl River County received 6-inch by 9-inch postcards sent to them anonymously and charging that members of the Pearl River County Board of Supervisors were supporting an effort to expand the local landfill and to bring in more Louisiana waste, particularly toxic waste. All five members of board of supervisors said the allegations on the card are not true, pointing to previous action by the board on the matter. Also, Central Landfill where county household and commercial waste is disposed of is not certified by either the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to accept waste the agencies define as toxic.

“That upon affidavit of two credible citizens that untrue statements were made against the two Board of Supervisors that have qualified as candidates for reelection for office that any person may be charged with a misdemeanor violation under 23-15-875,” Johnson said.

“They have done a detriment to our character and our administration and should be prosecuted,” Stockstill said.

“The job that I have puts me in a position that people watch every move I make and when someone attacks my personal character, it affects my family and my livelihood and I think they need to be prosecuted,” Davis said.

Whether the postcards that attacked the two supervisors is campaign literature is left up to the courts, the attorney general said.

“Establishing whether printed matter is such campaign literature is a factual determination that must be made by a court in accordance with the procedures provided by the state,” Hood said.

However, “General misdemeanor law allows the judge wide latitude,” Brumley said.

In all criminal cases a Judge has to consider evidence and determine whether a violation has taken place in order to issue a warrant. For a Judge to do this, a citizen must file an affidavit alleging a crime took place, said Johnson, whose office generally handles misdemeanors.