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Sheriff's office won't return film confiscated at murder scene

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    NMU         CALIFORNIA         Newsgathering         Jul 19, 2002    

Sheriff’s office won’t return film confiscated at murder scene

  • The Orange County and Riverside County sheriff’s departments confiscated film and video from a pair of journalists reporting near the site Samantha Runnion’s body was found.

An Associated Press photographer and free-lance videographer whose film was confiscated as they covered the discovery of a young murder victim’s body have not been able to get their materials back from sheriff’s department officials. The two were told to stop taking pictures and news footage and were forced to turn over their materials to investigators from two California sheriff’s departments on July 16.

At dusk, photographer Steven Doi and videographer John Casper encountered three Orange County and Riverside County homicide investigators on a wooded mountain where 5-year-old Samantha Runnion’s body was found earlier that day.

The two journalists say they ventured from the front of the crime scene where most reporters were congregated to explore its boundaries. After finding a back road that led up the mountain, they began taking footage of a group of sheriff’s officials when they were called over and reprimanded for being in the crime scene.

“At no point did I ever cross yellow tape,” said Doi, who had two flash cards — the electronic “film” in a digital camera — confiscated.

The officers examined the men’s drivers licences before informing them that they could be contaminating the crime scene, which the officials said extended five miles across the mountain. It was not marked and several hiking trails led directly into the area the investigators said was restricted, according to the journalists.

Casper said he had shut off his camera. But he began filming the encounter with the officers when he was told to turn off his camera. An officer reached over to shut it off, and another told the men to hand over their film.

“Usually with the sheriffs we have been successful at negotiating while on crime scenes,” said Casper, who sells his video to several Los Angeles television stations and has worked as a video technician for CBS. “I thought this was something that only happened in China or in Alabama in the ’50s.”

The reporters received makeshift receipts for their material. One was a business card with, scribbled on the back, “videotape seized as evidence.” One officer told the pair they would be able to reclaim their property within 24 hours; another said a federal lawsuit would be necessary.

The three investigative officers escorted the men back to the yellow-taped area where other media had congregated.

Doi, upon repeated attempts to get his film back, has been told the department is too busy investigating Runnion’s abduction to “deal with him.” Editors and legal counsel from the Associated Press have also been refused the material.

Both journalists are determined to reclaim their property and are willing to sue the department.


© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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