Iowa Journalist Cleared Of All Charges In Bullshit Prosecution Over 'Failure To Disperse'
from the that's-not-how-journalist---or-the-First-Amendment---works dept
The good news is that Iowa prosecutors’ attempt to jail a journalist for being present at a protest has failed. Andrea Sahouri — who was arrested while covering a George Floyd protest in Des Moines last summer — has been acquitted of all charges by a jury. But the fact that she was prosecuted at all is still problematic.
Sahouri was arrested by Des Moines police officers while apparently walking away from the scene of a protest. Officers at the scene broadcast conflicting orders from their squad cars. While one loudspeaker told protesters to disperse, another told protesters to “protest peacefully.” Officer Luke Wilson performed the arrest. Unfortunately, it took place out of view of nearby CCTV cameras. That shouldn’t have been a problem since Officer Wilson was wearing a body camera. But he “forgot” to ensure it was recording before he began arresting people.
The prosecution of Sahouri was handled in bad faith. Prosecutors sought to bar any mention of her employment as a Des Moines Register journalist during the court case. They claimed this case had nothing to do with press freedom — that it only involved someone disobeying a lawful order to disperse. They claimed this despite recordings of the PD’s arrival on scene showing officers issuing conflicting orders to protesters.
Police body-camera video played at the trial showed protesters blocking Merle Hay Road near the Wingstop restaurant at about 6:30 p.m. The word “disperse” from police car loudspeakers is barely audible amid the crowd noise, and the crowd is also asked to protest peacefully. Officers on the street are heard saying “get back, get back,” and many people in the crowd are shown doing just that, backing away from the street.
But the judge was having none of this bullshit, even as the prosecution donned its gaiters and waded into it. Officer Luke Wilson may have failed to activate his camera but the footage still could have been salvageable. Instead, Wilson took affirmative steps to make sure it wasn’t. That ended up hurting the prosecution’s case.
It was disclosed at trial that the body cameras used by Des Moines police have a background recording function. Had Wilson notified his supervisor promptly of his failure to turn on the camera, video still could have been captured. In a rare move, the judge instructed jurors that they could consider whether Wilson intentionally destroyed evidence favorable to Sahouri.
The prosecution also tried to use Sahouri’s own journalism against her. They claimed the photos she took of property damage to a nearby mall was evidence she had “failed to disperse.” But journalists aren’t necessarily subject to orders to disperse. And documenting newsworthy events is not the same thing as participating in them.
But the arrest did serve a limited purpose for the Des Moines PD: it deprived the public of documentation of their actions during their dispersal effort. Instead of having a neutral third party relaying info, the public was left with what police officers recorded on their cameras. And it’s safe to say Officer Wilson wasn’t the only officer who “failed” to record arrests and uses of force.
Fortunately, Sahouri has been cleared. But she should never have been charged in the first place. This may be a loss for prosecutors but it won’t deter officers from acting in bad faith again when they’re confronted with third parties recording their actions.