March 7, 2002
To: Michael Satz, Kathy Rundle, South Florida prosecutors, police officers
Re: Misplaced priorities
It has come to my attention recently that you law-enforcement types have lost respect for a little something called the truth.
No, this isn't 9/11-related. Cops have been hassling reporters and photographers for quite a while. Slapping on the cuffs so they can't speak with suspects. Tossing them in patrol cars so they can't snap important photographs. Even threatening them with up to ten years of hard time to dissuade them from rolling film that might incriminate police officers.
Indeed, an informal survey indicates that South Florida is probably the worst place in the nation for journalists who dislike the pokey. In just the past two years, police in Miami-Dade and Broward counties have arrested at least eight photographers and reporters who were trying to gather news. In every collar except the most recent one (of Sun-Sentinel director of photography Jerry Lower, which is still pending), prosecutors have dropped charges or juries have found the journalists not guilty.
Perhaps even more egregious than the detention of journalists is the case of Miami attorney Robert Bollinger, whose brutal beating by Davie police was described in New Times this past August 30. As part of a plea deal, Broward Assistant State Attorney Jorie Tress -- backed by Circuit Court Judge Royce Agner -- required Bollinger to lie by retracting truthful statements he made to New Times. "This is 1984" was all Bollinger would say when I phoned him for comment.
In most of the recent cases, authorities have asserted they were simply trying to keep everyone safe at a crime scene -- obviously a noble intention. But a closer inspection shows that, at least in some circumstances, law-enforcement personnel have abused authority and wasted public money on dumb prosecutions and ridiculous appeals. The effect is to send an ugly message: Cops and prosecutors consider order more important than openness.
"When you are out there on the front lines, you are at the mercy of these sometimes arrogant and vicious personnel," says Jim Gordon, editor of News Photographer, the monthly magazine of the National Press Photographers Association in Durham, North Carolina.
Arrest and imprisonment of South Florida journalists is an old tradition. Back in April 1978, News Photographer printed a series of startling photos from the Palm Beach Post-Times (the Palm Beach Post's predecessor) of a shotgun-wielding state trooper rushing photographer C.J. Walker as he snapped pictures of four armed robbery suspects on I-95. The officer then tugged a camera away.
The Highway Patrol, after investigating the incident, couldn't justify the trooper's actions. It apologized.
The most recent spate of journalist arrests began in January 2000, when officers at Miami International Airport collared the Herald's Arnie Markowitz, a crime reporter with 41 years of experience, who was checking out a report that an Immigration and Naturalization Service prisoner had escaped into a restricted area. Though two airport workers opened the door to the area, which was unmarked, police charged Markowitz with trespassing. He was later acquitted at trial.
"The airport security director insisted the cop arrest me," recalls Markowitz, who nevertheless managed to write his story on deadline that day. "Perhaps if he had taken the time to reflect, he would have said, "Fuck it.' It was a bad judgment call."
A few months later, in April, Associated Press reporter Margaret Richards was nabbed after she tried to get an interview in one of the year's biggest media events, the R.J. Reynolds tobacco trial at the downtown Miami courthouse. Richards's sin: She told Miami-Dade Sgt. Richard Conover that she was going to enter the courtroom to get some personal belongings, then began speaking to members of the plaintiffs' families. The charge was misdemeanor obstruction of justice.
In February 2001, Miami-Dade County Court Judge Caryn Schwartz dismissed the charges against Richards. In an 11-page decision -- much more detailed than most findings in misdemeanor cases -- Schwartz said the state hadn't made much of a case. Though prosecutors appealed the dismissal, this past December, the circuit court affirmed Schwartz's decision.
Piling lunacy upon stupidity, the state appealed a second time in January. There's been no decision yet. Nor has there been an accounting of how much public money has been wasted. Richards, meanwhile, has moved to New York.
Just a few weeks after Richards's arrest came the seizure of Elián Gonzalez. Journalists from around the world were camped outside the Gonzalez house for months.
Three people were arrested when immigration authorities raided the home. Los Angeles Times photographer Carolyn Cole was held for eight hours after police claimed she had thrown rocks at them to provoke a response. Miami Herald cameraman Raul Rubiera was accused of resisting arrest and obstructing justice. And NBC News's Bruce Bernstein was nailed for, among other things, battery on a police officer. Charges against all were later dropped.
"The police officer who arrested me was a real piss-ant," says Rubiera. "I've been in therapy for two years for my shoulder, because he messed it up when he grabbed me."
Adds Bernstein: "It was a pile of bullshit to get us off the street. Macho Miami cops gone wild."
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.
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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."
Clearly, there is a profound problem at the State Attorney's Office and on several local police forces. They seem to be more worried about public relations than informing the public. You shouldn't handcuff a reporter trying to do his or her job unless you have a very good reason. And you shouldn't use the truth as a bargaining chip in plea negotiations.