BATON ROUGE–The Baton Rouge Police Department disputes whether evidence
exists to substantiate a reporter’s allegation of excessive force, which an
advocate for journalists says is a common reaction from law enforcement.
Lea Anne Batson, parish attorney, has filed a response to
Brett Buffington’s complaint that police interfered with his investigative reporting
for WBRZ and in the process violated his constitutional rights, making him the
victim of malicious prosecution.
“What you have is two very different versions of events, and
it’s hard to prove which version is accurate without evidence, such as a broken
camera or an injury,” Gregg Leslie, legal defense director at the Reporters
Committee for Freedom of the Press, told the Louisiana Record.
In the 20 years he has defended journalists’ rights to report
from crime scenes, Leslie has observed a tendency for police to misstate the
case or consistently admit as little as possible. At issue is the television
reporter’s First Amendment right to record police officers performing their
duties in a public space.
According to Buffington’s complaint, on May 29, 2015, he and
an executive producer were driving through the Garden District in Baton Rouge
when they noticed a large police presence near the intersection of Oleander and Eugene streets.
The location with all of the police activity was not marked
by barricades or any visible borders of a crime scene. When Buffington and his
producer arrived at the scene, they were approached by Officer Clifton Crouch, who
requested that they leave, the complaint said.
Buffington said they identified themselves as reporters from
WBRZ, and immediately complied with the officer’s request by crossing the street
and distancing themselves from the police activity. When they used cameras on their
phones to take pictures, however, the WBRZ employees found themselves handcuffed in the
back of a cruiser.
The reporter was detained for approximately 10 hours. During that
time, he was strip searched, fingerprinted, and a DNA sample was taken before he was eventually released on bail. After reviewing the case, the District
Attorney’s Office decided not to prosecute Buffington.
“Defendants did not use any force which was unnecessary or
excessive under the circumstances or which rises to the level of a constitutional
violation,” Baston wrote in the police department’s answer to the charges,
which also included humiliation and intimidation.
If any force was used, it was reasonable in order to bring Buffington
under control and to maintain the security of the situation. It did not
constitute any unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain, the response to the
“Police want to be in charge of the scene, and reporters who try
to document how they are being treated run the risk of being arrested themselves
or having their cameras confiscated,” Leslie said.
He added that ultimately, when there is no evidence, the outcome
of the case will depend whose statements the judge believes. And if the judge agrees
with the police that there is no evidence, the case may be dismissed without
moving forward to trial.