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Reporter jailed over confrontation with police while covering story

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    NMU         CALIFORNIA         Newsgathering         Jun 6, 2000    

Reporter jailed over confrontation with police while covering story

  • A California judge refused to consider any reduction in the prison sentence of Larry Erickson, a freelance photographer who was arrested and convicted after a confrontation with police.

Freelance photographer Larry Erickson was sent to jail today, beginning an extraordinary 180-day prison sentence for his arrest and conviction in a confrontation with the Redlands, California police at an emergency scene. Erickson also accepted an extra 30 days in lieu of $3000 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 of the letters written in Erickson’s support or 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 offered by Erickson and the officers involved differ significantly.

Erickson was in his 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 Erickson’s chest. Erickson said that the told the officer to remove his hand because he had a right of access to the scene. Erickson 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 push past him.

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

A second officer reported that he then arrested Erickson to preserve evidence at the crime scene, including footprints on the median Erickson 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 a 180-day sentence, $3,000 in fines and three years of parole.

In determining the sentence, Barr considered 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 — as an indication that Erickson might have been trying to set officers up for a civil rights suit. Barr felt this justified a longer sentence.

In a letter to Barr, the Reporters Committee said that prevailing in a civil rights suit against police should never be viewed as an “aggravating circumstance” that justifies a longer jail sentence.

An appeal of Erickson’s conviction was denied in May of this year.

(California v. Erickson; Defense Counsel: Dennis Wilkins, Redlands) SK

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