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Reporter starts seven-month jail term over news scene incident

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From the Summer 2000 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 9.

From the Summer 2000 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 9.

A free-lance photojournalist started serving his seven-month jail sentence in June after a trial court judge determined that his confrontation with police deserved harsh punishment because it was the latest in a series of such incidents.

Larry Erickson was arrested in December 1998 after arguing with police about his access to a crime scene.

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A California judge refused to consider any reduction in the extraordinary 180-day prison sentence of free-lance photographer Larry Erickson, who was arrested and convicted after an altercation in December 1998 with the Redlands, Calif., police at an emergency scene. Erickson also accepted an extra 30 days in lieu of $3,000 in fines that he said he could not pay.

Erickson’s attorney, public defender Dennis Wilkins, said that Superior Court Judge Kenneth Barr refused to read any letters written in Erickson’s support before sending him to jail on June 6. The judge also refused to consider any reduction of Erickson’s sentence — including a stay of two days so that Erickson could attend his daughter’s kindergarten graduation.

“As it stands, the criminal justice system has shown itself to be very unfair in the case of Mr. Erickson,” Wilkins said.

The accounts of the incident offered by Erickson and the officers involved differ significantly.

Erickson was in the car with his daughter when he happened upon a crime scene. Police were examining a car that had been abandoned after a chase of bank robbery suspects. According to Erickson, he approached the crime scene after the police had already opened the area to vehicle traffic and had finished collecting evidence. As he attempted to approach the car, he was stopped by an officer who put his hand on the photographer’s chest. Erickson claims he told the officer to remove his hand because he had a right of access to the scene. Erickson also admitted that he told the officer, “Get your hands off me, Buckwheat.”

But officers later said that they were not finished collecting evidence when Erickson approached the scene. The officer who tried to stop Erickson alleges that the photographer pushed his hand away in an attempt to move past him.

In their written report on the incident, the officers claim that Erickson was uncooperative. Erickson admits to directing offensive remarks at officers during the incident.

A second officer reported that they then arrested Erickson to preserve evidence at the crime scene, including footprints on the median the photographer was moving toward. Erickson said his six-year-old daughter, who was watching from the car, was traumatized from watching the incident.

In April 1999, Barr sentenced Erickson to 180 days in jail, a $3,000 fine and three years of parole.

In determining the sentence, Barr speculated that Erickson’s calls to a civil rights attorney and a television news department’s assignment desk from the back of the police car — as well as the fact that Erickson had previously prevailed in a civil rights suit against law enforcement officials years before — might indicate that Erickson was trying to set officers up for a civil rights suit.

Erickson’s history with police was not discussed during the trial but was a major factor in his sentence, Wilkins said.

In 1989, Erickson was arrested by sheriff’s deputies while photographing the scene of a fatal fire at a mobile home park. He filed a civil rights claim, which the county eventually settled by paying him $50,000.

In a letter to Barr, The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said that prevailing in a civil rights suit against police should never be viewed as an “aggravating circumstance” warranting a longer sentence.

“It truly offends the sensibilities behind civil rights legislation and the First Amendment to suggest that talking to an attorney and winning a civil rights suit can be turned into evidence that the defendant was out to get police,” the committee argued. “Under the court’s reasoning, those who dare to defend their rights will soon lose them.”

The (Riverside) Press-Enterprise reported that Erickson was again arrested in January 1999 after another altercation with police. Erickson allegedly got too close to the scene at the end of a police pursuit and interfered with authorities. He pleaded not guilty to those charges.