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Eyewitness reporters not protected from testifying in court

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Eyewitness reporters not protected from testifying in court07/29/96 MINNESOTA--In mid-July, the state Supreme Court unanimously held that no qualified reporter's…

Eyewitness reporters not protected from testifying in court

07/29/96

MINNESOTA–In mid-July, the state Supreme Court unanimously held that no qualified reporter’s privilege exists under the First Amendment or the Minnesota constitution that would protect reporters who witness criminal activity from being compelled to testify in criminal cases.

In addition, the court held that the state shield law does not apply to reporters who personally witness crimes, nor to unpublished, non-confidential information, including photographs. The shield law protects only the confidential relationship between a reporter and his or her sources of information, the court stated.

The court rejected the view that a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court case had recognized a qualified privilege in which the person issuing the subpoena would have to show a “compelling need” for the information.

“In our view, the Supreme Court has declared that no qualified constitutional privilege exists under the First Amendment that would protect reporters from compelled testimony in a criminal case,” the court stated.

Chris Polydoroff, a photographer for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, rode with police officers on their patrols in mid-October 1995 as part of the newspaper’s coverage of the area’s crime problems. During one stop, the police officers arrested Steven Turner on charges of possessing crack cocaine. Turner later subpoenaed Polydoroff, seeking his unpublished photographs and his testimony as a witness to Turner’s arrest.

The trial court quashed the subpoena, finding that Polydoroff’s photos and testimony would not be relevant to Turner’s case. The Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s ruling.

The court ruled that unpublished information or photographs should be viewed by judges alone in their chambers to determine the information’s relevancy before forcing a news organization to disclose the information in its possession to the parties. (Minnesota v. Turner; Media Counsel: Paul Hannah, St. Paul)