Thursday, March 13, 2008

High Court won't hear Indy photo case


An effort by the Santa Barbara Independent to withhold from the Superior Court hundreds of photos of a March 14, 2007 crime scene came to a screeching halt on Wednesday when the California Supreme Court declined to hear the paper’s appeal.
As a result of the high court’s decision, the Independent will likely have to hand over its photos by next Thursday, or its photographer, Paul Wellman, could face steep fines or jail time.

The Supreme Court made its decision without first hearing arguments by either the Independent, or Deputy Public Defender Karen Atkins, who subpoenaed the photos late last year.
Michael Cooney, an attorney representing the Independent, said it’s impossible to know how much time the state Supreme Court spent discussing the case or why they came to the conclusion they did.
“It’s pretty tough to get their attention,” Cooney said. “The Independent, to their credit, wanted to take it all the way to the end of the line.”
He said the high court hears a slim minority of the cases it receives, about one in every 250.
Atkins, who also subpoenaed and received photos belonging to the Daily Sound and the Santa Barbara News-Press, said she hopes to get the Independent’s photos before the March 26 preliminary hearing for her client, Ricardo “Ricky” Juarez, commences.
“We just want to get the pictures already,” Atkins said.
Juarez, 15, has been charged with murder in connection with the March 14, 2007 stabbing death of 15-year-old Luis Angel Linares, who was killed during a massive gang brawl that occurred in broad daylight near the intersection of Carrillo and State Streets.
Daily Sound Editor and Publisher Jeramy Gordon turned over that paper’s photos after a brief legal battle, during which Hill said he would hold the paper in contempt if it did not comply.
Cooney, who also represented the Daily Sound, argued that the paper did not have to obey the subpoena because Atkins failed to sufficiently justify the reasons for her request.
Cooney said he believed both the Daily Sound and Independent were exempt from complying with the subpoena due to protections afforded journalists under the California Journalist Shield Law. The Shield Law protects journalists from being held in contempt of court when a subpoena isn’t obeyed.
It also carries particular weight when dealing with a newspaper’s unpublished material, which is exactly what Atkins continues to seek.
Hill didn’t agree with Cooney, saying Juarez’s constitutional right to a fair trial outweighed any possible First Amendment implications that could ensue as a result of the subpoenas.
“I think that Judge Hill had a very fair hearing on this,” Cooney said. “The appellate courts didn’t feel like it was appropriate to overturn him.”
Tuesday’s decision by the state Supreme Court fell in line with the appellate court, which also declined to hear the Independent’s case.
Though Cooney said all appeals are now exhausted, he hopes people who have followed the case through the courts have a better understanding of the importance of protecting news gatherers from becoming tools for law enforcement.
“It’s an important principle,” he said. “I don’t think the public clearly understands it. If nothing else was gained from this than making the public aware that a free and independent press is what’s at stake, then it was worth it.”
Now that the higher courts have passed on hearing the case, Cooney believes the door is open for any arm of the law to subpoena not only unpublished photos, but the notes of reporters as well.
“I think we should be concerned about the next case,” he said. “Literally, the door is open now to subpoenaing any reporter at any crime scene, reporters with notes, it’s all the same principal and the same protection.
“I don’t think it’s the last time.”
Attempts to reach editors at the Independent for comment were unsuccessful.

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