Ron Johnson/AP

Parody Twitter account of Peoria, Ill., mayor leads to police raid

The mayor of Peoria apparently ordered the investigation into the account

Police officers trying to find out who was behind a fake Twitter account set up in the name of Jim Ardis, the mayor of Peoria, in Illinois, have raided a home, seizing computers and phones and hauling several people in to be questioned.

Tuesday's raid was carried out by four plainclothes officers even though Twitter had suspended the account several weeks ago.

The raid has raised questions about how free speech is defined and monitored by governments in the Internet age.

Three people at the home that was raided were brought to a police station to be interviewed, as were two other people who were met by police at their workplaces.

No arrests were made in connection with the Twitter account, but one of the residents was charged with possession of marijuana, the Peoria Journal Star reported.

Police Chief Steve Settingsgaard says officers were investigating it as a possible case of impersonating a public official, an offense punishable with a fine of up to $2,500 and up to a year in jail.

"They brought me in like I was a criminal," said Michelle Pratt, a 27-year-old resident who was in the shower when officers arrived at the front door.

The Twitter account was set up in late February or early March under the handle @Peoriamayor. It included a photo of Mayor Ardis, his city email address and a bio saying he enjoyed serving the city.

Some tweets referenced sex and drugs.

By March 10, the bio information was updated to indicate it was a parody account. It had about 50 tweets and as many followers.

"A parody means it's fake. It was even listed as fake," Pratt said. "It was a joke Twitter account, and they searched the whole house."

But Settingsgaard took a different view.

"I don't agree it was obvious, and in fact it appears that someone went to great lengths to make it appear it was actually from the mayor," Settingsgaard said in an email response to questions.

Ardis could not be reached for comment.

According to the Journal Star, the mayor was the one who requested the investigation. The paper said that police spent two to three weeks finding out the where the house the Twitter account was being operated from was located. The search process included obtaining warrants to get information from Twitter and Comcast.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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