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Reporter arrests continue, but often charges are dropped

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From the Summer 2000 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 4.

From the Summer 2000 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 4.

Journalists around the country had run-ins with everyone from police officers to federal agents to a governor in recent months. In the most serious incidents, journalists were harassed, assaulted, arrested and even jailed while trying to cover the news.


Florida reporter acquitted of trespassing at airport

A Miami Herald reporter arrested for trespassing while covering a story at an airport was acquitted by Dade County Judge Wendell Graham on April 19.

Arnold Markowitz, the Herald’s chief Miami-Dade crime writer, was arrested after he walked through a fire escape door to get onto the roof of the Miami International Airport in January. A Jamaican man who had escaped a Naturalization and Immigration Services holding cell was thought to have fled to the airport’s roof. The man was later found hiding in the ceiling of the holding cell.

Markowitz watched the search from an overlooking window and, when he thought the search was over, pondered whether to go onto the roof. The decision was made easier when two airport workers opened the fire escape leading to the roof.

“One of them even held the door for me,” Markowitz told the Herald.

The airport argued that access to the roof is restricted to people with proper identification. But Markowitz’s attorney, Jeffrey Fink, noted that there was no sign marking the door as a restricted area, only a sign reading “Emergency Exit.”

The signs have since been changed to clearly mark restricted areas.


Charges over Reporter’s run-in with officer dropped

A judge dismissed charges against a reporter for an alterative newspaper who was arrested while trying to cover a conference.

There was insufficient evidence to support the charges against the Buffalo Beat reporter who was arrested after he entered a hotel to cover a conference held by a city official whom he regularly criticized in print and battled in the courtroom. Buffalo City Court Judge Thomas Franczyk ruled on July 7 that because the charges could be dismissed due to insufficient allegations of fact, there was no need to examine the reporter’s First Amendment argument.

Reporter Richard Kern’s arrest was the latest altercation in a four-year quarrel with police officer and convention sponsor Robert Quintana. Kern has been arrested eight times in recent years while covering city hall stories in Buffalo, and five of those arrests were based on complaints from Quintana or his friends and associates.

When Quintana was elected to the city council in 1995, Kern was one of his supporters. But after Quintana allegedly failed to deliver on campaign promises, Kern’s opinion and coverage of the official quickly soured. According to Kern, Quintana and his family hold this negative press “heavily responsible” for the official’s failure to win re-election in 1999.

The long-running battle between the reporter and the official has included physical, verbal and written attacks, as well as arrests for both men.

Kern claims that as he stepped off the hotel elevator to attend the convention, Quintana ran toward him yelling obscenities and had him held by another off-duty officer until the police arrived.

But a complaint filed by Quintana’s girlfriend, Mildred Castro, alleges that the reporter “did act in a threatening manner, holding his arm in a forceful manner with his fist closed, yelling at coordinatores [sic] and insisting on forcing his way through the crowd.”

Franczyk noted that it was Castro, not a hotel official, who filed the trespassing complaint. Additionally, the court failed to find any evidence that the conference was a private or restricted event to which Kern should not have had access.

Kern’s attorney, Michael Kuzma, was relieved that the court dismissed what he believed to be erroneous accusations against the reporter.

“They basically manufactured charges against him,” Kuzma alleged.

Quintana did not return calls seeking a response.


Charges dropped against photographer covering miami protests

Prosecutors have dropped the charges against a Los Angeles Times photographer who was arrested on April 22 while covering the protests following the seizure of Elian Gonzales from his Miami relatives’ home.

Carolyn Cole was arrested for throwing a deadly missile, a felony charge that carries a possible sentence of five years imprisonment. Police claimed that she threw rocks at officers in order to photograph their response.

Times officials called the charge “totally without foundation” and requested that it be dropped.

“It was an absurd charge for something I didn’t do,” Cole said. “I now have a better understanding of how others feel who are arrested and put in jail for crimes they didn’t commit.” Cole was arrested and detained for more than eight hours before she was released on bond.

“In arresting Cole and detaining her . . . Miami police prevented her from continuing to report a story of national importance,” Times editor Michael Parks said.


NBC cameraman meets with INS to discuss alleged assault

An NBC cameraman allegedly assaulted by federal agents during the raid to retrieve Elian Gonzalez met with two U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services officers on June 13.

Cameraman Tony Zumbado’s questioning was part of an INS inquiry into actions by federal agents during the seizure of Gonzalez, prompted by NBC’s complaint to the agency.

Zumbado was one of two journalists who made it into the home during the April 22 raid. Zumbado alleges that federal agents struck him in the back, knocked him to the ground and held him at gunpoint by the front door to prevent him from filming the incident.

Zumbado did not talk directly to the two investigators, but he was present while his attorney, John Ross, told the cameraman’s side of the story.

The agents claim that they did not assault anyone or threaten to shoot if the boy was not handed over.

A second NBC employee, soundman Gustovo Moller, also alleges that he was attacked outside the house by agents who struck him near the eye with a gun.


Georgia photographer arrested while covering story

A Savannah (Ga.) Morning News photographer has sued the mayor, police chief and a police officer in a dispute over the right to take pictures at the scene of an arrest. Photographer Matt Moyer was ordered to stop taking pictures and eventually was arrested by an officer that Moyer claims “displayed recklessness, callousness and indifference” to the photographer’s First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

In late February, Moyer was covering a local boxing match when he noticed a police officer leading a handcuffed man out of the gym.

According to a civil complaint filed by Moyer, the photographer followed the officer outside and began to take photographs from 10 to 15 feet away. The officer, Cpl. Reginald Owens, noticed Moyer and quickly threatened that he would be thrown in jail if he took any more pictures.

Owens walked over to where Moyer was standing, and the two men argued about the photographer’s right to take pictures of an arrest occurring in a public place. Ultimately, Moyer decided not to take photographs for fear he would be arrested.

At no point did Owens establish a police line or order any other spectators to move back from the scene.

Moyer discussed his arrest with a spectator, who “expressed disbelief” that the officer had barred the photographer from taking pictures. When the spectator agreed to be a witness to the incident, Moyer removed a small notepad from his pocket and began writing down the spectator’s name and address.

Owens saw Moyer writing in his notebook and stated that he “was through with” him. Owens, assisted by another officer, grabbed the photographer and “violently twisted his arm behind his back and handcuffed him,” causing his camera to fall to the ground.

Moyer was charged with obstruction and disorderly conduct and taken to jail, where he was released on bond. On April 20, the court dismissed the charges against Moyer for lack of probable cause.

“Corporal Owens singled out [Moyer], and treated him differently than the other members of the public,” Moyer’s complaint said. “Further, Corporal Owens prevented [Moyer] from performing his job as a newspaper photographer.”

Additionally, the complaint alleges that Owens was “motivated by maliciousness and spite and a desire to punish [Moyer]” and suggests that a widespread pattern of officers arresting citizens for mere verbal disagreements with police exists in the city of Savannah.


Minnesota reporter arrested for taping officials’ party acquitted

A local cable television host charged with assault, disorderly conduct and trespassing while covering a party for local officials was acquitted on May 25.

Kevin Berglund, a host of a local cable show called “Inside Insight,” was jailed after arguing with officials about whether the party honoring outgoing Maplewood, Minn., City Council members was a public or private event.

Berglund and co-host Bob Zick were approached by city officials and asked to leave the event, which was held on December 30 at the town’s community center. Officials said that Berglund and Zick refused to leave, pay the $15 entry fee, or tape the party from the side of the room.

Several police officers arrested Berglund and took the videotape from the camera. Zick was not arrested.

The newly elected Maplewood mayor, Robert Cardinal, bailed Berglund out of jail.

In May, Berglund was acquitted of the charges by a Ramsey County jury.

The jury “basically felt he had not done anything wrong,” John Borger, an attorney for Berglund, said. “They believed that whatever bad situation had occurred happened because of the police.”

Berglund believes that he had a right as a journalist to attend and film the event.

“They tried to intimidate me,” Berglund told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “The way I look at it, take the New York Times. If police come up and give them trouble, they have a whole floor of lawyers. But will nonprofit [journalists] have the same freedom? At least today says they will.”


Missouri cameraman in run-in with governor and bodyguard

A St. Louis television cameraman has sued Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan and his bodyguard for allegedly assaulting him during an interview attempt in early May.

When KTVI-TV cameraman Larry Washington requested an interview, Carnahan covered the camera lens with his hand. The Governor’s bodyguard, Sgt. Elbert Marshall of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, shoved the cameraman against a wall.

Washington seeks at least $75,000 in damages, alleging that the altercation injured his back and cost him lost wages and medical expenses.

Carnahan originally claimed that he was ambushed by the cameraman and reporter Elliot Davis. But he later changed his story and apologized after the video of the incident proved otherwise. Marshall has not apologized or admitted wrongdoing in the incident.


Arkansas reporter requesting public records not prosecuted

Charges were dismissed against a reporter who was arrested for obstructing governmental justice after attempting to obtain public records from the county sheriff.

The altercation occurred when Magnolia Banner-News reporter Toni Walthall went to the Columbia County jail on March 20 to request documents regarding the furlough of an inmate convicted of arson and burglary. She had received a tip saying that the inmate had been on a weekend furlough to his parent’s house when it was destroyed by a grease fire.

Sheriff Wayne Tompkins refused to give Walthall the records, which are public under Arkansas law, claiming that he had not yet had a chance to review them. After a brief debate, Walthall was repeatedly asked to leave the area. The reporter claims that the area, which was marked for authorized personnel, was traditionally open to reporters and other visitors.

Walthall was arrested by a deputy at Tomkin’s request and taken across the street to the jail. She was initially charged with obstruction of a law office, a felony. The charge was later reduced to obstructing government operations, a misdemeanor.

The newspaper then filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the documents Walthall was seeking. After waiting 72 hours to receive the documents, the Banner-News filed a lawsuit against Tompkins.

Circuit Judge Larry Chandler ruled that Columbia County sheriff Wayne Tompkins violated open records laws by failing to provide records in a timely manner. Prosecutor Jamie Pratt has not decided whether to grant Banner-News requests to press charges against Tompkins for the FOIA violation.

On April 19, Pratt and his deputy announced their joint decision not to prosecute Walthall.


Michigan photographers have film seized for violating court order

A Michigan judge confiscated the film of two Port Huron Times Herald photographers who violated an oral court order prohibiting the filming of jurors.

Photographers Tony Pitts and Mark Rummel were detained and handcuffed until they turned over the film, which had been shot outside of the courtroom after the jurors had rendered their verdict in the May 12 retrial of Port Huron’s former mayor.

In the trial, Gerald Ackerman was convicted of 10 counts of sexual misconduct involving preteen girls.

Circuit Judge Peter Deegan had announced his order banning cameras from the courtroom during the trial only minutes before Pitts and Rummel took the photographs. But the photographers said that they were unaware that the order had been issued.

Times Herald executive editor Denise Richter said that Deegan denied the newspaper’s requests to have the film returned. On July 18, the newspaper appealed the judge’s order to the state Court of Appeals.

“We continue to believe our photographers had every right to photograph the proceedings outside the courthouse on Friday,” Richter said. “To take photographs of public events on public property is a right we must guard carefully.”