Non-confidential information not privileged in a criminal trial
NORTH CAROLINA–A state appellate court in Raleigh ruled in mid- February that non-confidential information obtained from a non- confidential source is not protected by a qualified reporter’s privilege from compelled disclosure in a criminal trial.
Judge S. Gerald Arnold, writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, held that neither the First Amendment nor North Carolina’s constitution shields a reporter who was asked by a prosecutor to testify about the contents of a broadcast interview.
The appeals court affirmed the decision of the state Superior Court in Raleigh that Sarah Owens, a reporter for WCNC in Charlotte, was in criminal contempt of court for refusing to answer questions from Assistant District Attorney R. Thomas Ford.
Ford subpoenaed Owens and two other reporters to testify about statements made to the media by G. Bryan Collins, an attorney representing William Boychuk, who was on trial for allegedly murdering his wife. The journalists asked the court to quash the subpoenas, but the court refused.
Owens appeared as a witness at Boychuk’s trial, but when Ford began to ask her questions she refused to provide any information about her interview with Collins. Judge Robert Farmer ordered her to answer Ford’s questions, and when she continued to refuse he found her in criminal contempt of court and sentenced her to thirty days in jail.
“Take her away and lock her up,” he said.
When subsequent testimony from Collins himself yielded the information Ford sought from Owens, Farmer decided that the reporter’s testimony was no longer necessary. The judge reduced her sentence to time served, which at that point was approximately two hours.
Jonathan Buchan, an attorney who represented Owens on appeal, said the reporter had not yet decided whether or not to ask the state Supreme Court to consider the case. (In re Sarah Lynn Owens; media counsel: Jonathan Buchan, Charlotte)