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 complaint said.
“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.