You Can't Handle the Truth!

Law enforcement's attempts to muzzle the media help no one

It's just such major news events as the seizure of Gonzalez where the press should be given a free hand, says Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Washington, D.C. "If we have an independent eye, police are less likely to become abusive," Dalglish adds. "Public officials love to have control, and often, the control factor means elimination of the coverage. That is good for no one."

Nor were the charges against freelance photographer Joshua Prezant good for anyone. Prezant was arrested August 11, 2000, while taking pictures of a Social Security building for a New Times story about the agency. Though he was shooting from a public sidewalk, Fort Lauderdale police officer Anthony Castro ordered him to stop photographing. Prezant disputed his authority; in the fracas that followed, he contends, the officer took a swing at him.

After this newspaper spent more than $10,000 on legal fees in the case, authorities dropped the charges. Prezant filed an internal complaint against Castro that came to naught.

The drumbeat continued this past September, when a 50-year-old veteran television cameraman, Rudy Marshall of WFOR-TV (Channel 4), was called to Florida City to shoot the landing of an air-rescue helicopter. According to the police report, Marshall placed his tripod in the "danger zone," too close to the landing spot. Miami-Dade Fire Department Lt. Merrill Camel protested.

What happened next is in dispute. Although the police report alleges that Marshall "picked up his camera and swung it at Lt. Camel several times," Marshall reports that he "touched her with my tripod... Then there were so many police cars around that it looked like Christmas in the street. They said I was under arrest and then threw me in the police car."

Though Marshall was initially charged with three felony counts of aggravated assault and battery, the charges fizzled. Marshall agreed to write an apology and attend anger-management classes. Prosecutors will likely dispose of the case this week, says Marshall's attorney, former Miami-Dade prosecutor Michael Band.

The Sun-Sentinel's Lower became just the latest in the lineup when he stopped at the site of an accident on I-95 on February 18. He pulled out his camera and started shooting. Police told him to leave. He refused. They carted him off to jail on misdemeanor charges of resisting an officer without violence. He declined comment.

The case of Miami lawyer Bollinger is more disturbing than the others. There are only two depositions in the court file, both from witnesses, which seem to make clear just how badly Davie police acted on February 17, when Bollinger walked up to a party at the Palladium nightclub and asked to enter. Dressed in a business suit, he hoped to meet a potential client inside. The cops were trying to clear people from the area.

Here's what Leslie Volgy, a witness, told prosecutors under oath: "The policeman said "...I will arrest you' and, um, he got ahold of [Bollinger] and tackled him. [Bollinger] fell on his face... then it happened out of nowhere, three or four, five officers showed up, and they all went up to him. A couple started to kick him... then one of them said, "Hey, stop resisting arrest.' They twisted his arms behind his back. He was laying on the ground trying to protect his face. He didn't resist at all. He didn't abuse them verbally. He was moaning because he was in pain."

Police offer a different version of events. After Officer Dale Engle's thumb was broken in the scuffle with Bollinger, officers charged the lawyer with two felonies of resisting arrest and battery on a police officer as well as misdemeanor trespassing. The combination could have sent him to jail for 11 years. The New Times story, by Eydie Cubarrubia, described most of this.

But on January 31, just two weeks before trial, Bollinger accepted a plea agreement: six months probation, 15 hours community service, costs, and "a written letter of retraction and apology to New Times." On February 22, Bollinger penned a letter to New Times: "Pursuant to the terms of my plea agreement, I hereby retract any statements I may have personally made that you relied upon in writing the... article." Bollinger, of course, can't talk to us, but a very good off-the-record source says that -- had Bollinger not been bullied by prosecutors -- he would have stood behind his story.

It's the retraction that some media types find disturbing. By offering a lenient plea agreement, authorities were apparently trying to paint a better picture of themselves, justice be damned.

Dalglish, of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, called it "insane" after I described it to her.

"I've never heard of anything like this," concludes Sanford Bohrer, probably South Florida's best-known media attorney. "First they beat the guy up; then they make him apologize for bleeding. Amazing."

When I called prosecutor Tress to ask her about the case, she said that the victim had requested the letter and that manipulating the press "was not my intention." Then she asked me to fax her Bollinger's letter. The next day, a signed letter arrived for me on Broward State Attorney Satz's stationery. "The letter written by the defendant was one of the things the victim wanted... the defendant agreed. We agreed. It is no more profound than that."

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