TRENTON, N.J. (CN) – Wrapping up a battle on prior restraint this week, a New Jersey judge threw out an attempt to censor a reporter given custody records about a kindergartner who brought heroin to school.
News outlets across the state had been focused on the unnamed 5-year-old since September 2016 when a Trenton charter school teacher found him playing with a packet of heroin.
The child had another 29 packets of heroin in his lunchbox and was put in foster care a month later after school officials found crack cocaine in his personal folder.
Though authorities brought child-endangerment charges against the boy’s father, Maurice Leonard, and that man’s girlfriend, Turia Justice, the couple were released on bail in October.
Trentonian reporter Isaac Avilucea says he was approached around this time by the boy’s mother, Tashawn Ford, who was fighting Leonard for custody.
After an Oct. 26 custody hearing, state officials followed Avilucea out of the Mercer County Courthouse carrying child-abuse documents about Leonard and Ford’s son.
Avilucea maintains he was given the file, but state officials claim he illegally cajoled the boy’s mother to hand over the documents.
Hit with an injunction by Family Court Judge Craig Corson, Avilucea and the Trentonian ultimately redacted much of the custody information from the story they published on Leonard and Ford’s custody battle.
Superior Court Judge Lawrence DeBello held two hearings on the case, the latest in February, and lifted Corson’s order Monday.
NorthJersey.com quoted an attorney for the newspaper as applauding the ruling.
“We want to thank Judge DeBello for affirming and protecting important First Amendment values today,” David Bralow, an attorney for The Trentonian at the Philadelphia law firm Pepper Hamilton, said Thursday. “From the time that the Trentonian learned of the unfortunate order, it has expended significant effort to protect its and its reporter’s First Amendment rights. We are vindicated today.”
During his testimony last month, Avilucea said Ford was “animated” and “cursing” when she handed him a copy of the child-custody document after the Oct. 26 hearing. “You can have it,” Avilucea remembered the woman saying.
He testified that he made a copy and that a deputy attorney general confronted him when he tried to hand the original back to Ford. Avilucea admitted that he continued walking with his copy after a sheriff’s officer had asked him to stop. “It was a public courthouse … I was just there to do my job,” he testified.
Though Ford and her family told a different story on the stand, Judge Corson acknowledged during the hearing that she could face as much as 18 months in jail if found guilty of passing along confidential documents.
Avilucea told Courthouse News in an interview after Wednesday’s hearing that “it’s asinine” to think he stole the complaint from Ford.
“I’m not God,” he said. “I wouldn’t even have known about the case if she hadn’t come to the Trentonian. And they want to say that I snatched the documents.”
Avilucea added that he doesn’t blame Ford for claiming Avilucea stole the child-custody complaint from her instead of her giving it to him since prosecutors had leverage on her. “I mean, they had her kid,” he said.
The Society of Professional Journalists condemned Corson’s emergency injunction against the Trentonian last December, calling it “an intolerable precedent” and noting the information in Avilucea’s report was not even as sensitive as the information from the Pentagon Papers published by The New York Times during the Vietnam War.
SPJ gave Avilucea its “Courage Under Fire” award for his reporting last month.
Avilucea has fought before in court over prior restraint. In 2014, while reporting for the Connecticut Law Tribune, he was barred from publishing an article regarding child custody based on a writ of habeas corpus. The judge in that case reversed the injunction after the state Supreme Court agreed to take on the case and other newspapers published similar reports.
Avilucea, whom colleagues have described as a dogged reporter, also allegedly escalated the current legal issue by refusing a settlement with the state attorney general that would have required the Trentonian to destroy the confidential child-abuse complaint and not publish anything from it in future stories.
In exchange, Avilucea and the newspaper would be free from criminal prosecution.
Avilucea was quoted in the Daily Beast as saying that “I didn’t feel like the Trentonian’s lawyers had my back … this was settled case law long before I was born.”
Leonard, 28, has run afoul of the law before. He pleaded guilty in 2006 to first-degree robbery and was charged with murder as a teenager in 2003.