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Judge upholds criminal trespass conviction of reporter

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Judge upholds criminal trespass conviction of reporter

  • An Arizona superior court judge upheld a criminal trespass conviction of a reporter who sought comment from a former police officer at his home.

July 12, 2004 — A superior court judge in Arizona upheld a reporter’s criminal trespass conviction for trying to interview a former police officer at his home.

East Valley Tribune reporter Bryon Wells argued on appeal that he lacked criminal intent when he approached the home of former Officer Daniel Lovelace, and that his activities as a reporter were protected under the First Amendment. Judge Michael D. Jones of Superior Court in Phoenix rejected both arguments July 2.

“Reporters who are in violation of a criminal trespass statute are not exempt from prosecution simply because they are exercising a First Amendment right,” Jones wrote.

Despite a “no trespassing” sign, Wells opened an unlocked three-foot gate in front of Lovelace’s Chandler, Ariz., home on Nov. 6, 2002, then proceeded to ring the front doorbell. Lovelace was charged with second-degree murder at the time.

Lovelace’s wife, Tricia Debbs, answered the door and asked Wells to leave. According to court records, he did.

Debbs still filed a trespassing report with the Chandler Police Department, and Wells was later charged with criminal trespass.

In May 2003, a trial court judge convicted Wells of the misdemeanor, placed him on unsupervised probation for one year, and fined him $300. Under Arizona state law, a person commits criminal trespass in the first degree by “knowingly . . . entering or remaining unlawfully in a fenced residential yard.”

Wells’ attorney, Daniel Barr, said both judges ignored several appellate court rulings in other states that more clearly define “trespassing” as it relates to reporters.

“Trespassing is converting someone else’s property for one’s own use,” said Barr, who did not consider Wells’ actions tantamount to trespassing.

Barr said ringing a person’s doorbell despite a “no trespassing” sign is rarely a prosecuted offense, and that this case was handled differently because it involved a police officer in a high-profile murder case. Lovelace is currently on trial for second-degree murder in the death of Dawn Rae Nelson, whom he shot in October 2002 while trying to arrest her for filling fraudulent prescriptions at a drive-through drugstore in Chandler. Lovelace is arguing that he acted in self-defense.

Barr said Wells has not decided whether to further appeal the trespassing ruling.

(Arizona v. Wells; Media Counsel: Daniel C. Barr, Brown & Bain, Phoenix) AV

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