CALIFORNIA — A judge dismissed a complaint against a newspaper photographer in late November who was arrested in mid-July while taking pictures of a drowning rescue. The judge ruled that a trial would have a chilling effect on free speech.
Bakersfield Municipal Court Judge Charles Pfister ruled that John Harte did not have to stand trial just because he asserted his right to take photos at the drowning scene.
Harte, a veteran photographer for the Bakersfield Californian, was arrested for interfering with police after he refused to stand behind a gate with other reporters at the scene of the July drowning on the banks of a local canal. His trial was set for November 14 and he faced up to a year in jail if convicted.
Harte argued that he had a right to be at the accident scene and that it was clear the nine-year-old drowning victim was dead before rescue workers could pull him out of the canal.
The prosecution argued that journalists should not be allowed full access to disaster scenes because they get in the way of rescue and police officials.
In his three-page opinion, Pfister wrote that Harte was entitled to see and record the recovery of the body, and found that the child was apparently dead at the time of Harte’s arrest. He also said he would overturn a conviction if Harte was found guilty in a trial.
Deputy District Attorney Stephanie Arnold said the state would appeal and called the ruling “factually incorrect and legally wrong,” according to the AP.
(People v. John Harte; Media counsel: Stanley Simirin, Bakersfield)
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