Court upholds ruling in White cellphone saga

A state appeals court Tuesday backed a judge’s order barring city-parish officials from releasing a raft of text messages compiled during the criminal investigation this year into fired Baton Rouge Police Chief Dewayne White.

The 1st Circuit Court of Appeal, in a 2-1 decision, upheld state District Judge Chip Moore’s finding that thousands of messages on Kim McCants’ cellphone should not be released to the news media after a criminal inquiry into White’s missing departmental phone was closed without charges. A detective who reviewed the messages has said they revealed an extramarital affair.

“If I could do a back flip, I would,” said Jill Craft, the attorney for White who had accused the authorities of using the cellphone probe to smear the former chief. “I’m really thrilled about (the ruling).”

City-parish officials expressed disappointment at the appellate decision but have no plans to request a rehearing, Assistant Parish Attorney Joseph K. Scott III said.

City-parish officials contended that Moore’s jurisdiction was bound to the criminal investigation into White, and that he inappropriately issued a civil order blocking the release of McCants’ messages.

“This was a relatively minor procedural issue that we wanted to test,” Scott said.

Judge James E. Kuhn issued a dissenting opinion saying White had lacked standing to challenge the search warrant used to confiscate McCants’ cellphone, adding Moore did not have jurisdiction to issue further rulings on the seized property.

Weeks have passed since the bitter legal wrangling that accompanied White’s dismissal, and several city-parish officials have said they were eager to put the episode behind them as Mayor-President Kip Holden prepares to select White’s successor.

But while Tuesday’s ruling upheld the status quo on McCants’ phone, it also paved the way for Craft to resume her pursuit of sanctions against city-parish officials she claims violated Moore’s order in releasing “salacious” details derived from the text messages.

Before the appellate court was asked to review Moore’s ruling, several officials, including William Daniel, Holden’s top aide, had been ordered to appear at a contempt hearing triggered by the release of a police report that summarized detectives’ efforts to locate White’s unreturned cellphone. That report included Detective Cleveland “Mack” Thomas’ conclusion that White had initially refused to return the phone to conceal an affair.

Parish Attorney Mary Roper has noted the text messages in question were blacked out of Thomas’ report and called Craft’s claims “outrageous,” adding city-parish officials also intend to seek “appropriate sanctions” against Craft.