Iowa Reporter Goes on Trial After Arrest at Protest

Prosecutors say police had cause for arresting a reporter for failing to leave the scene of a violent demonstration, but defense lawyers say she was just doing her job covering a protest.

Police officers are shown arresting Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri after a Black Lives Matter protest she was covering on May 31, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa, was dispersed by tear gas. (Photo courtesy Katie Akin via AP)

DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) — Iowa prosecutors told jurors in the criminal trial of a Des Moines Register reporter Monday that police were justified in arresting and criminally charging a reporter covering a protest in the capital city because she ignored police orders to disperse and interfered with officers’ duties.

Lawyers for the journalist argued in response that reporter Andrea May Sahouri, 25, had a legitimate right to be at the demonstration to do her assigned job of covering a news event and that she followed the officers’ commands and identified herself as a news reporter.

Monday’s opening statements and selection of a jury of three men and three women came in the first of what is expected to be a two-day trial. Assistant Polk County Attorney Bradley Kinkade is trying the case for the prosecution. Representing the defense is Nicholas Klinefeldt of Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath in Des Moines, who is a former U.S. attorney.

Sahouri was among a crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters near a shopping mall on the city’s north side last May when she was pepper-sprayed, arrested, and jailed on charges of failure to disperse and interference with official acts. Sahouri’s then-boyfriend, Spenser Lyle Robnett, who was with her, was arrested on the same charges. Both pleaded not guilty to the misdemeanor charges that could bring fines of $625 and up to 30 days in jail for each offense.

At least 126 journalists were arrested or detained in 2020, and 13 still face charges, including Sahouri. The Des Moines Register, the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, and Amnesty International along with other First Amendment advocates, have demanded Polk County drop the charges, which they see as a violation of the constitutional right of a free press.

Polk County Attorney John Sarcone, who has resisted those demands for nearly a year, has refused to comment publicly on the case beyond a statement in an email to the Register last August saying, “We strongly disagree with how this matter has been characterized and will do our talking in the courtroom, which is the proper place to deal with this case.”

In her opening statement for the prosecution at Monday’s trial, Brecklyn Carey, a Drake Law School student and Polk County Attorney’s Office intern, told the jurors that to prove the charges against Sahouri and Robnett, the state must prove that police officers gave a dispersal order that could be heard by the defendants, that they did not disperse, and that they resisted officers’ attempt to make the arrests.

Carey said jurors will see video that a police officer had given a dispersal order. “You will see that each of the defendants were with earshot of that order,” she said, and that an hour and a half after the order had been given, while most of the crowd obeyed the order to disperse, “Andrea Sahouri did not.”

On the day Sahouri was arrested, a group of protesting police brutality following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer converged on a Des Moines shopping mall, and the demonstration turned violent and destructive.

A press badge for Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri features her jail booking photo from her May 31, 2020 arrest while covering a Black Lives Matter protest. (Photo courtesy Andrea Sahouri via AP)

In his opening statement to the jury, defense attorney Klinefeldt said: “This case is about a reporter who was arrested for doing her job.”

Sahouri was assigned by the Des Moines Register to cover last spring and summer’s protests following Floyd’s killing.

Amid the chaos and wafting pepper spray, officers shouted “get back, get back” but “no one was telling anyone to go home or leave the scene,” Klinefeldt said. He said the defendants did what they were told by retreating when she encountered a police officer who pepper sprayed her in the face and took her into custody.

Testimony from Des Moines police officers continued Monday afternoon, and a second day of testimony was expected Tuesday before the case will be submitted to the jury.

According to an affidavit signed by a Des Moines police officer, Sahouri “was a member of a group (of WELL over three people) that assembled to protest allegations of racism and police brutality. The protests evolved to property damage and obstruction of public roadways, with many of the remaining participants engaging in violent, intimidating and destructive behavior.”

The affidavit said police officers “loudly and repeatedly instructed all participants to disperse,” but that Sahouri “willfully stayed among the group that remained.”

The reporter can be seen on a nearby security camera video running away from police pepper spray, and crossing a four-lane street south of the mall. Sahouri had stopped to check on Robnett, who was struck by a projectile, when Des Moines Police Officer Luke Wilson approached, shot pepper spray into her face and restrained her with zip ties. Sahouri was taken to the Polk County Jail where she was held for three hours before being released.

The security camera video, introduced as a defense exhibit, shows Wilson “as he rounds the storefront just seconds before and mere feet away from his encounter with defendants,” defense lawyers said in a court document.

“It is likely the most relevant piece of evidence that will be presented by either side in this trial, because the state did not produce body camera footage showing the alleged incidents,” the defense lawyers wrote.

Sahouri, who had been using her cellphone to provide live news coverage of the protest on Twitter, said she repeatedly identified herself as member of the news media, although she did not have press badge on her at the time. Wilson has claimed he was unaware Sahouri was a reporter until he was detaining her. The officer did not activate his body camera during these events.

“Officer Wilson wrongfully arrested a journalist while she was reporting on eminently news-worth events in blatant disregard of First Amendment press protections,” Klinefeldt argued in a brief filed with the trial court. “Rather than remedy his error, the state has proceeded with the charges stated in these complaints based on ambiguous factual allegations.”

He wrote, “The state wishes to paper over the First Amendment dimensions of this case and prevent the jury from hearing facts regarding Sahouri’s role as a journalist at the protest.”

Klinefeldt cited an Eighth Circuit decision from January that says “reporting is a First Amendment activity.”

“Even in circumstances where police have declared an assembly unlawful or issued dispersal orders, reporters do not forfeit their First Amendment rights to lawfully observe and report the events,” the attorney wrote.

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