The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press today urged a California judge to reduce the six-month sentence imposed on freelance photojournalist Larry Erickson, who was arrested and convicted over a confrontation with Redlands, Calif., police at an emergency scene. Erickson is required to surrender himself in court tomorrow, Tuesday, June 6.
The committee also expressed shock that San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Kenneth 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 indications that Erickson may have been trying to set officers up for another civil rights suit, which the judge felt justified a longer sentence.
Erickson was arrested in December 1998 while covering events at a crime scene. Police were gathering evidence near a car that had been used in a bank robbery, and one officer was being treated for wounds received while chasing the suspects. According to Erickson, police had opened the area to vehicle traffic and had finished collecting evidence when he sought to approach the car, but officers later said they were still collecting evidence at the time.
When an officer placed his hand on Erickson’s chest and attempted to stop him, Erickson said he told the officer to remove his hand, saying he had a right of access to the scene. The officer alleged that Erickson pushed his hand away and attempted to push past him. Erickson, who also admitted to directing offensive remarks at two officers during the incident, was then arrested. He was convicted and sentenced to six months in jail and three years of probation in April 1999, and an appeal of that conviction was denied in May of this year.
In its letter to the judge, 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.
“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. “The filing of a civil rights suit to vindicate constitutionally protected rights should not be evidence of animus or illegal intent; successfully advancing such a suit — presumably meaning that a court and jury that considered all evidence sided with the journalist — simply cannot be. Under the court’s reasoning, those who dare to defend their rights will soon lose them.”
Noting the court’s speculation on what evidence might have been jeopardized by someone with free access to the entire crime scene, the committee added that the sentence “seems to be based both on a worst-case scenario of what might have occurred if Mr. Erickson had not been stopped by police, and on speculation about his motives that do not seem to be supported by testimony before the court.”
The protest letter can be found at the Reporters Committee’s web site at: https://www.rcfp.org/news/documents/erickson.html