Florida Pastor Terry Jones says police lured him into a trap Wednesday to prevent him from exercising his First Amendment-protected right to burn Qurans in Mulberry, Fla.
In addition to alleging a set-up, Jones claimed in a Friday interview with U.S. News that police did not read him his Miranda rights, and he threatened to sue the Polk County Sheriff's Office if the charges against him are dismissed or if he's found not guilty.
The controversial pastor was arrested and charged with a felony for illegally transporting fuel and a misdemeanor for openly carrying a firearm. He was traveling in a truck that was towing nearly 3,000 kerosene-soaked Qurans inside a large rented grill. Previous Quran-burnings by Jones have been blamed for murderous rampages in Muslim countries and many Mulberry residents objected to the demonstration.
The felony charge facing Jones and associate Marvin Sapp brings a maximum of 40 years in prison. "The unlawful conveyance of fuel charge stems from Jones and Sapp dousing and emptying kerosene into a smoker/trailer onto a stack of Qurans, and then dangerously transporting the trailer onto a state road," the Polk County Sheriff's Office said in a statement.
But Jones told U.S. News he shared his plans to pre-soak the Qurans during a meeting with three police officers – two from Polk County and one from Manatee County – and an FBI special agent on Sept. 7. None of the officers voiced concerns, he said.
"We told them at the time we would be soaking the Qurans in kerosene and would be driving them down there," Jones said. "We had no idea that was against the law. They were aware of what we were going to do."
Dave Couvertier, media coordinator of the FBI's Tampa field office, confirmed the FBI was in contact with Jones. The FBI wanted "to let him know there were some safety concerns" based on "unsubstantiated threats," Couvertier said. "We were not engaging in any arrest activity," he said, and "we were not involved [in his arrest]."
Polk County police detectives, however, did warn Jones before Wednesday "if he violated the law, he would absolutely be arrested," Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said in a statement following Jones' arrest.
"Even the guy who ended up handcuffing us and arresting us was [at the Sept. 7 meeting]," Jones said. "They knew what we were doing, what route we were taking. I've been a pastor all my life and maybe I'm a little naive, I thought they were going to help us."
The police detective identified by Jones as the arresting officer was reached by U.S. News Friday. He directed all questions to Polk County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Donna Wood.
Wood declined to address Jones' allegations. "Mr. Jones will have an opportunity to be heard in court," she said.
Jones said his claim that he wasn't read his Miranda rights – which if true could scuttle the legal case against him – could be corroborated by videos taken of his arrest.
First Amendment experts told U.S. News Thursday it would be unconstitutional for police to selectively enforce laws against Jones because of his political beliefs. University of California at Los Angeles law professor Eugene Volokh pointed to the 1985 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Wayte v. United States. The court ruled "the decision to prosecute may not be [based on]... the exercise of protected... constitutional rights."
"I imagine that many people convey wood and combustible material to tailgate parties and picnics [without arrest]," George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley said. The reason Jones and associate Marvin Sapp were initially pulled over was for lacking registration and lights on the smoker-grill trailer. The grill was rented by Sapp, Jones said, and is presumably driven by other locals without lights or registration and with flammable materials inside.
Jones has not yet hired a lawyer to fight the charges.