March 30th, 2012 by Mickey Osterreicher
In January of this year Stephen Horrigan, an NPPA member was charged with felony eavesdropping and misdemeanor obstruction for using his cellphone to record a traffic stop by police officers in North Port, Florida. Horrigan came out of his nearby home to see what was going on and determine the newsworthiness of the situation. For doing nothing more than that, as he stood with other members of the public, he ended up spending a night in jail while facing a five year prison term if convicted on the eavesdropping charge. Adding insult to injury the police seized his phone as “evidence” and held it until recently.
On January 30. 2012 NPPA sent a letter to North Port Police Chief Kevin Vespia, strongly objecting to “the treatment and arrest of NPPA member and freelance photojournalist Stephen P. Horrigan.” The letter went on to state “in addition to the arrest, the fact that Mr. Horrigan’s camera was unlawfully seized is also extremely troubling. We believe that his video of the incident will show that officers acted in an arbitrary, capricious and unprofessional manner and appeared to have no concept of the First and Fourth Amendment rights granted under the United States Constitutions as well as similar protections provided by Florida law.” The letter concluded with the request “that the charges against Mr. Horrigan be immediately dropped; that his equipment and any recordings made by him be immediately returned; and that this incident be fully investigated. We further request that your department immediately issue orders directing officers to cease such activity and also that your department implement revised training for all officers regarding these matters.”
This case was covered extensively in the press by Billy Cox of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and Carlos Miller of Photography is Not a Crime. As a justification for trampling on the rights of a citizen they produced a Probable Cause Affidavit and also referred to “a legal guideline that our officers have read and discussed during roll call. The issue here is not the video portion but the audio portion. This is the current guideline we use for cases like these. The guideline was issued by the legal counsel of the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and permission was granted for distribution,” according to North Port Police Captain Robert Estrada, in an email.
After reviewing that “January 2010 North Port Police Bulletin #10-12″ along with a Law Enforcement News Letter the NPPA sent a scathing email back to Captain Estrada and Chief Vespia citing cases and correcting the misinformation provided in the bulletin concerning the circumstances under which there may and may not be a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” Although there had been some positive dialogue between NPPA and the North Port Police there was no response to the email or even acknowledgement that it had been received.
In February an attorney from the Florida ACLU, Andrea Mogensen agreed to represent Mr. Horrigan, who as of March 11, 2012 had still not heard from the State Attorney’s Office (SAO) as to whether they planned to move forward on the original charges. On March 13, 2012 the Herald-Tribune printed a column by Eric Ernst supporting Horrigan’s’ position. Shortly thereafter Horrigan filed (on his own) a Motion for Hearing: A Plea for Relief from Prior Restraint seeking the return of his smartphone, battery and memory card, and alleging, among other things that the seizure of those items violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article I, Section 4 of the State of Florida Constitution as being a form of prior restraint on his ability to publish that material. He also asserted that as the operator of “a web-site news-gathering ‘blog’ and dues paying member of the National Press Photographers Association” he may not have any greater rights under the First Amendment than the public but that he enjoyed no less right because of it.
A week later a detective came to his house at 7am to tell him that he could pick-up his phone at the evidence room. In utter surprise he found that the video had not been deleted, although he believes that it had been viewed or copied. He posted it on YouTube for everyone to see. So far it has over 4,200 hits. The Herald- Tribune posted an editorial urging police, prosecutors and legislators to improve their guidelines, training and practices and also revise the eavesdropping statute.
Yesterday the SAO declined to prosecute and dropped the charges, noting in a memo that the people could not meet their burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt and also questioned whether the officer had an expectation of privacy in this instance. As for the “resisting, obstructing, or opposing an officer without violence charge,” State’s Attorney Eric Werbeck concluded that Horrigan did not meet any of the elements constituting that crime either.
While the NPPA is gratified to see that prosecutors had the common sense to drop these charges (as has happened in almost all such cases around the country) it is too bad that the North Port police did not use the same good judgment. As is often said in police parlance “we can do this the easy way or the hard way.” The latter choice resulted in six-figure settlements in two recent cases. Once again, it appears that police ignorance and arrogance concerning constitutional rights may result in another costly combination, ultimately born by taxpayers who can ill afford it.
In a late-breaking development Ms. Mogensen announced in a press release that she has filed a notice with the City of North Port claiming monetary damages in excess of $200,000.00 based upon false arrest, retaliation for the exercise of First Amendment rights, and malicious prosecution.
Posted in Access, confiscated, detained, False Arrest, First Amendment, First Amendment rights, Florida, FLorida ACLU, Fourth Amendment, Fourth Amendment rights, Lawsuit, Legal, Malicious Prosecution, National Press Photographers Association, News Photography, Newsgathering, NPPA, photographers, Photographers' Rights, photojournalism, Police, Public Forum, Public Photography, Reasonable Expectation of Privacy, Recording, Recording Police, retaliation for the exercise of First Amendment rights, Search and Seizure, video cameras | 9 Comments »