• Georgia Court Denies Application for Arrest Warrants Sought Against Reporter and Photographer
  • July 19, 2007 | Author: Jeremy Ches
  • Law Firm: Holland & Knight LLP - Jacksonville Office
  • In a victory for the First Amendment, a Georgia state court magistrate recently thwarted a local sheriff’s attempt to charge a reporter and photographer with criminal trespass.

    A local resident applied for warrants to arrest the journalists after they investigated whether the sheriff was improperly using jail trusty labor to build an addition to his private residence. Following a lengthy probable cause hearing, Judge Harvey Fry held neither the reporter nor the photographer possessed the requisite criminal intent to satisfy the elements of criminal trespass and denied the warrant application.

    On June 20, 2007, Gordon Jackson and Chris Viola of the Florida Times-Union traveled to Cumberland Island, Georgia, to follow up on questions raised by residents there about whether trusties should be permitted to work on private property. Jackson and Viola, accompanied by a friend and local attorney, walked along a public road to the property line of a private residence – and, according to the sheriff, entered the property – where trusties were believed to be building an addition to the residence.

    Jackson’s research showed no building permits for the new construction were recorded with the county. He also determined that although the residence was located on national park property under an agreement with the National Park Service, no park approval had ever been given for the new construction.

    The property’s owner, two days after the reporters’ visit, filed the application for warrants for their arrest. At the June 28 probable cause hearing, the burden under Georgia law was on the property owner, not a prosecutor, to demonstrate there was sufficient probable cause to issue an arrest warrant. As testimony was being elicited, it became evident that the sheriff’s office was seeking these trespass warrants more than the property owner.

    The owner testified that he did not observe the journalists on his property, the journalists did not damage his property, and he does not care if people walk around in the woods on his property. He testified that he only learned of the incident when a law enforcement officer told him that he’d seen two individuals on the property.

    The officer testified that he observed one of the journalists and the lawyer who accompanied him – both of whom the officer knows personally – on the property, beyond a clearly marked sign that read, “Private Residence Beyond – No Entry.” The officer further testified that he spoke with the men but did not advise them they were on private property or that they were trespassing.

    A detective also testified that when he interviewed the lawyer during his investigation of the incident, he never read the lawyer his rights and secretly recorded the interview. Finally, testimony was elicited that sheriff’s officers picked up the property owner and drove him to the courthouse, and filled out the warrant applications for him.

    Despite the unsuccessful effort to have its journalists prosecuted, the Times-Union published the article about their investigation – and continues to follow the story. During his testimony, the officer admitted that he was assigned to supervise the trusty laborers, and the owner testified that he was paying the sheriff’s office supervisors money for the work completed by the trusties.

    Holland & Knight represented the journalists in this matter.