Iowa Prosecutors Move Ahead With Prosecuting A Journalist For Being Present At A Protest

from the those-people-are-interested-in-facts!-get-'em! dept

There’s an ongoing trial in (of all places) Iowa that cuts to the heart of First Amendment protections for journalists. Andrea Sahouri, an award-winning journalist for the Des Moines Register, was arrested last May during a protest resulting from the killing of an unarmed black man by Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin.

Despite attempting to identify herself as a member of the press, Sahouri was hit with a tear gas canister, pepper sprayed, and arrested for “failure to disperse.” According to Des Moines police, Sahouri wasn’t wearing any press credentials, something that has been acknowledged by both Sahouri and her editor at the Register.

However, it’s also not clear at this point that any order to disperse had been given, making anyone — much less a journalist — subject to arrest for not immediately leaving the area. The lack of press credentials could be a problem, but it’s also being argued Sahouri was known by officers and should have been recognized as someone covering the protest, rather than participating in it. Journalists generally aren’t subject to orders to disperse.

Her newspaper issued this statement in its editorial against her prosecution:

Journalists cover protests to serve as the eyes and ears of the public, to ensure free speech and assembly rights are upheld and to seek out the truth of what unfolds, whether a protest is peaceful or violent and whether law enforcement’s response is viewed as proportional or excessive.

And this clash of press freedom vs. riot control isn’t limited to Iowa. It’s been happening all over the nation. Journalists have been targeted with riot control weapons as well as arrested for covering protests. And there are similar cases all around the nation, as the Register points out:

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has documented an alarming increase in arrests and detainment of journalists in 2020: at least 126, compared to nine in all of 2019. Most of them, like Sahouri’s, happened at protests as Americans took to the streets to demand change from their government, after the deaths of George Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of police, and preceding and following the tumultuous November election.

Prosecutors believe they’re doing nothing wrong, even though testimony at the trial appears to show Sahouri was moving away from police officers and the area they were seeking to control when she was arrested. This is the defensive statement issued by the prosecutor’s office:

“We strongly disagree with how this matter has been characterized and will do our talking in the courtroom, which is the proper place to deal with this case.”

The talking in the courtroom has begun. And there’s already at least one troublesome detail. The officer performing the arrest could have presented an almost-indisputable record of the incident, but chose not to.

First, there’s the footage that’s actually available, which would appear to show the journalist moving away from police — something that suggests she was exiting the area in response to an order to disperse.

Sahouri and Robnett can be seen coming around the corner shortly before police, but the camera angle does not show the spot where they were actually arrested.

Then there’s the arresting officer, Luke Wilson, who — despite being engaged in crowd control efforts — decided none of it was worth documenting.

Wilson did not activate his camera for the arrest, and although it is possible to retrieve video after the fact, it was not done in time to save the footage from being overwritten. Wilson says he thought he activated the camera when he disembarked from a police vehicle, but didn’t notice in the resulting chaos that it was not on.

Seems like something you’d want to verify before entering a chaotic scene that implicates any number of Constitutional rights and criminal acts. But the officer claims it was so chaotic he couldn’t be bothered to expend the second or two needed to ensure his body camera was on. Even if we believe Wilson’s lack of recording was accidental, it shows officers aren’t following body camera protocol and will still choose to verify recording status only when it’s convenient to them.

Then there’s the police department itself. Its officers entered the scene broadcasting conflicting instructions:

Squad car public address systems can be heard in the background telling people to “disperse” and also “protest peacefully.”

So, it can’t be argued by the PD that a clear order to disperse had been given. If Sahouri wasn’t engaged in violent acts or non-peaceful protesting — something that’s not only unlikely given her position as a journalist, but also according to the footage available — the officers had no justification for this arrest. You can’t tell people to do both but only choose to arrest those that followed one of the two orders: peaceful protesters.

This case isn’t over yet. It will go before a jury. The facts don’t look good for the Des Moines PD, which not only arrested a journalist, but did so despite her following at least one of the conflicting orders being issued by officers.

It might be a stretch to say there’s been a concerted effort by law enforcement to target journalists during these protests. But it’s undeniable that some officers and agencies have deliberately gone after journalists merely for documenting crowd control efforts. No one willing to engage in unjustified force wants to have their actions documented. And when that’s the mindset, even those thoroughly protected by the First Amendment are considered enemies of the state.

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Comments on “Iowa Prosecutors Move Ahead With Prosecuting A Journalist For Being Present At A Protest”

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23 Comments
This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That One Guy (profile) says:

Maced if you do, bludgeoned if you don't

Squad car public address systems can be heard in the background telling people to "disperse" and also "protest peacefully."

Assuming that wasn’t due to them just making things up on the spot(possible, but grossly irresponsible if true) that sounds like a perfect way to justify treating ‘protesters’ any way you want, because a cop can use that confusion to selectively go after people(like, oh, reporters) by claiming that they weren’t following orders, and if the cop gets called on it they can just claim that they were merely following (one of) the orders given and claim QI protection.

It might be a stretch to say there’s been a concerted effort by law enforcement to target journalists during these protests.

The quote just a short bit above would seem to suggest otherwise:

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has documented an alarming increase in arrests and detainment of journalists in 2020: at least 126, compared to nine in all of 2019. Most of them, like Sahouri’s, happened at protests as Americans took to the streets to demand change from their government, after the deaths of George Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of police, and preceding and following the tumultuous November election.

To those in positions of power who would really prefer it if their narrative was the only one available an outside observer is very much a threat, and they seem to be reacting accordingly.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Upstream (profile) says:

Re: Maced if you do, bludgeoned if you don't

It might be a stretch to say there’s been a concerted effort by law enforcement to target journalists during these protests.

The quote just a short bit above would seem to suggest otherwise:

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has documented an alarming increase in arrests and detainment of journalists in 2020: at least 126, compared to nine in all of 2019. Most of them, like Sahouri’s, happened at protests as Americans took to the streets to demand change from their government, after the deaths of George Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of police, and preceding and following the tumultuous November election.

To those in positions of power who would really prefer it if their narrative was the only one available an outside observer is very much a threat, and they seem to be reacting accordingly.

This^. During these protests in particular, and especially during the Trump administration / rule, it could be reasonably argued that not wearing obvious press credentials was a self-defense measure, to avoid being specifically targeted by the government enforcers as "an enemy of the state."

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Press credentials

Press credentials shouldn’t be a standard. Anyone can be press, usually shown by not protesting or engaging in protest related action, sometimes holding a camera or recording device.

Police shouldn’t be gassing / shooting / arresting people at random. Prosecutors shouldn’t be prosecuting them, even when police are (allegedly) commanding protesters to disperse.

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

Anonymous Coward says:

What is her husband doing about this.

If she were my wife, I would have broken into the prosecutor’s computer nertwork, went to the folder of the prosecutor assigned to the case, and then erased everything in that folder to hinder preparation of the case against her.

I would have loved to have seen that prosecutor’s face when he went to pull up his folder on the office computer network and and found everything GONE.

I believe that a husband has a DUTY to DO that to PROTECT his wife.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Wipe the disk clean

That is what secure disk wiping programs are made for. If I were her husband and did that, I would securely wipe the entire hard disk, then re-partition, re-format, and then reinstall the operating system and all my programs

Police forensic software would not be recover any evidence off my hard disk

No evidence = NO CASE

I also keep such software around and use it whenever I buy a new computer, because you never know what the techs that put it together may have done.

This way, anything I don’t know about that could get me in trouble becomes unrecoverable

When buying a new computer, you need to securely wipe the hard disk and then reinstall the OS and all programs so anything you don’t is there is wiped out to where forensic software cannot recover anyhthing.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"If she were my wife, I would have broken into the prosecutor’s computer nertwork, went to the folder of the prosecutor assigned to the case, and then erased everything in that folder to hinder preparation of the case against her."

So, you’re saying that if she were your wife, you’d commit obvious felonies so that you’d spend time in prison in solidarity with her sentence?

A noble response in a way, I’m sure, but I don’t see how that would clear her.

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

"So, you’re saying that if she were your wife, you’d commit obvious felonies so that you’d spend time in prison in solidarity with her sentence?"

Not if I used one of numerous programs out there to securely wipe my hard disk and render anything in the way of evidence unrecoverable so that forensics could not get anything

No evidence = NO CASE

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

No evidence = NO CASE

You really think the only evidence of you breaking into a prosecutor’s office and wiping their computers (don’t forget any backups) would be on your computer? I’m kind of hoping you try this so you find out close up and personal what a stupid idea it is. But I have a feeling this is more of an "internet tough guy" phenomenon than something that would ever happen in real life.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Upstream (profile) says:

Re: How is this remotely constitutional?

Of course this should have been "dead on first amendment grounds" before Andrea Sahouri was

hit with a tear gas canister, pepper sprayed, and arrested

While this was all abhorrent, and should never have been done in the first place to any peaceful protester, journalist or not, for a journalist it may at least eventually count as a sort of badge of honor, and may even wind up being a positive notation on a resume.

For many (probably most) other people, this kind of unwarranted, abusive treatment could easily have other, far reaching and far more destructive, results: possible loss of employment, possible ostracization by friends and family, possible bankruptcy defending oneself against the charges, etc. These "side effects" can be incredibly damaging, both in the short and long terms, for the victim.

Having the charges dropped, which probably will happen, but only after the damage has been done, is small consolation to someone who may now be standing, very much alone, in line at a soup kitchen.

Getting a financial settlement will almost certainly not happen. Even if it does, it will be years after the fact, again, after the damage has been done.

The concept of "Justice delayed is justice denied" certainly applies here, and in all similar cases. In order for justice to truly not be denied, Andrea Sahouri should have never been "hit with a tear gas canister, pepper sprayed, and arrested" to begin with.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
DB (profile) says:

Update: The judge is going to include a spoliation instruction to the jury: if the jury finds police and prosecutors intentionally destroyed or failed to preserve body camera video of the arrests, they are allowed to infer the evidence not preserved would have been favorable to the defense.

In some cases the judge allows such things because the case is strong or they think that jury has already decided, and they don’t want a ground for appeals. I don’t think that is the case here.

"When I look at the totality of the evidence, I believe there is substantial evidence that a jury could infer that there was intentional spoliation of evidence," Judge Lawrence McLellan said.

TasMot (profile) says:

Body Cameras

Since law enforcement agents (cough cough cough) can’t seem to follow departmental policies and tend to lose the body cam footage anyway if it doesn’t support their narrative, it’s most likely time for journalists especially, and every protester generally to start wearing the body cameras to start protecting themselves. Maybe there are even some that will immediately stream the audio and video straight to the cloud so that it is just a little further out of reach of the delete immediately crowd of LEO’s.

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