Is requiring someone to sign in with their full name before being allowed access to public government offices a constitutional violation?
Dan Warmus, of Alden, sure believes so. And he tested the constitutional muscles of Wyoming County deputies during a so-called “First Amendment audit” at the end of last month. The audit quickly turned into a confrontation that dragged on for almost an hour.
“Auditors” are part of a social movement that is growing across the country. They film their encounters on their cell phones and publish the videos on social media platforms, monetizing them with advertisements. A chief goal is to test the constitutional knowledge of public servants, and many focus on law enforcement.
The auditors often cite the First Amendment’s right to a free press and their legal right to record in public spaces, which was more clearly established in the 2011 court case Glik v. Cunniffe. Restricting such access would be a violation of their First and Fourth Amendment rights.
Some describe the audits as a form of citizen journalism that promotes transparency and accountability.
There have been moments when the audits have ended in arrest or detainment. Lawsuits have been filed. In fact, Warmus was handcuffed and detained by Erie, Pennsylvania, police officers for almost an hour this year when he filmed police vehicles in the government parking lot.
Worst case, there have been instances when audits turned violent.
For example, in Leon Valley, Texas, the sheriff threw an auditor to the ground before arresting him. Another auditor was shot by a security guard at a mosque.
News 4 Investigates covered Warmus in a story back in May. The Alden resident launched his first video a few months after he participated in the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol. He will be sentenced on Sept. 12, after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge of willfully and knowingly parading, demonstrating, or picketing inside the Capitol.
Warmus said the public servants in Wyoming County, including Sheriff Greg Rudolph, one of his captains and two deputies, committed constitutional violations on a level that he has yet to experience in New York.
The commotion ignited after Warmus wrote on the sign-in sheet that his name was Dan Erie County, which raised the suspicion of Deputy M. Sage.
“You’re coming with me,” Deputy Sage said to Warmus.
“Why am I coming with you?” Warmus said.
“You didn’t sign in,” Deputy Sage said.
“I did sign in,” Warmus said.
“You’re name is not Dan Erie County,” Deputy Sage said.
Warmus said the practice of forcing people to sign their names on paper before they are given access to public buildings is a form of identifying someone, which is a violation of his constitutional rights.
Specifically, the Fourth Amendment protects U.S. citizens from the government interfering with their free movement in public spaces and from being interrogated about their identities unless there is reasonable suspicion that a crime was committed.
“They can always ask for ID, but you don’t have to give ID unless you’re suspected of a crime,” Warmus said.
And signing in as Dan Erie County is not a crime.
The situation went off the rails within minutes as Warmus and Deputy Sage argued on a first-floor hallway in front of the county clerk’s office, where Warmus said he wanted to file a Freedom of Information law request.
Another deputy, S. Omans, joined her partner and together they blocked Warmus from getting to the clerk’s office.
Roughly 14 minutes into the 56-minute recording, Capt. Erik Tamol is called to assist. Sheriff Rudolph makes an appearance roughly 19 minutes into the video.
At different times, both deputies and the captain put their hands on Warmus, appearing to shove him in the opposite direction, away from the clerk’s office.
“Do not touch me,” Warmus said. “Get your cameras on! I’m a free citizen! You don’t have a right to do this!”
“Do you know what people think when you’re around recording everything?” Deputy Sage said. “That you’re going to come back …”
Warmus interrupted him: “That I’m exercising my rights?”
“No,” Deputy Sage said, “that you’re going to come back here and cause problems.”
“You need to get a real job,” Deputy Omans said.
Warmus several times asked if he was being detained. When he was told that he was not being detained, he tried to walk past the deputies, but they both kept blocking him.
“You guys are ‘pig-norant,’” Warmus said. “That’s the new term today for you guys is pig-norant. You guys are being pig-norant to the law.”
“You don’t have a right to be down here,” Deputy Omans said to Warmus.
Warmus turned around once Sheriff Rudolph entered, and both deputies closed and locked a door that leads to the hallway toward the clerk’s office.
“I’m here to document my experience and these guys are stopping me, causing an illegal detention,” Warmus said to the sheriff.
“Doesn’t look like you’re being detained to me,” Sheriff Rudolph said.
Warmus thanked the sheriff and walked toward the locked door to try to open it.
“Sheriff, why is the door locked?” Warmus said. “If they are going to allow public services to the public, what is going on here? You guys are violating my rights.”
To which the sheriff responded, “There’s no rights being violated here.”
The confrontation continued for more than a half-hour before Warmus relented by signing in with his real name. Warmus said he normally would not have obliged, but he wanted to test the deputies if they would find another reason to keep him from entering publicly accessible county offices.
“A lot of people don’t know their rights and that’s part of why we do what we do, is it teaches people their rights, how to assert their rights,” Warmus told News 4.
Critics, however, do not see the value in the audits.
“If they’re legally in a place where they’re allowed to be and they’re recording, just let them do it,” said Patrick Phelan, executive director of the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police. “And what they really want is for you to engage with them and to make you look bad. I think it’s important to just train our people to not take the bait and don’t give them what they want.”
In the end, Warmus did get access to the clerk’s office. He even sat down in the chairman’s seat in the Board of Supervisors’ room, grabbed the gavel and turned the camera toward himself.
“Is this America? Or is this Wyoming County?” Warmus said. “Because in America, we are allowed to do this.”
The video of the Wyoming County visit, posted on June 27, has more than 86,000 views as of Tuesday afternoon. Supporters have left hundreds of critical comments on the Wyoming County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page ever since Warmus made the video public.
“If you treat a member of the public like that inside a public building I shudder to think how you treat them on the streets, definitely not a county I would want to visit if I was travelling in the area,” wrote a resident from British Columbia.
A man from Meridian, Idaho, wrote, “Disgusting behavior by both deputies as well as the sheriff. Way to violate your oaths!! You must be so proud of yourselves!”
Sheriff Rudolph declined an on-camera interview and did not respond to specific questions about how his deputies handled Warmus. So, it is unclear if any discipline was dealt to any of the deputies involved.
As for the sign-in sheet, Rudolph confirmed that it has been removed from the government building.