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California court considers proposed arson case gag order

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  1. Prior Restraint
A California state court in Placer County heard arguments Tuesday on a motion from the local district attorney's office for…

A California state court in Placer County heard arguments Tuesday on a motion from the local district attorney's office for a controversial gag order in a shopping mall arson case. The attorney for the accused and the Sacramento Bee opposed the gag order, which, if granted as proposed, would apply not only to the parties and their attorneys, but also to investigating agencies and their employees as well.

The larger significance of the prosecution’s proposed “order prohibiting comment on the case” became apparent last week, when the City of Roseville decided to withhold public disclosure of an investigative report about the emergency response to the mall fire. Although the city had initially intended to release the report, it reversed that decision after the district attorney's office sought the gag order.

The withheld findings were particularly noteworthy because they were expected to explain why the mall's sprinkler system shut off during the fire, according to The Sacramento Bee.

In its briefing submitted before the hearing, the district attorney’s office asserted that the city’s findings, which the prosecution acknowledged the city had drafted “for public and media release,” should not be released to the public. The briefing argued that the release of such information “poses a substantial danger of tainting the pool of potential jurors, and endangers both the Defendant’s and the People’s constitutional right to a fair trial.”

Johnny Griffin III, representing the accused, opposed the gag order. Griffin asserted in his briefing that such a prohibition would do little to reduce publicity and could compromise his ability to comment on the case.

The Bee also opposed the proposed gag order, asserting that it would unconstitutionally impair newsgathering and also failed to meet the high standards necessary to justify restraining speech. Attorney Charity Kenyon’s brief also asserted that the order would not have the desired effect. “The proposed order would not prevent publication of information about the case pending and during trial, but it could result in the perpetuation of an error or misunderstanding already reported to the public,” Kenyon wrote.

News reports of the hearing indicate that the parties held to their positions at the hearing.

A decision by the trial court is expected later this week.