Articles Posted in Responsible Journalism?

wedding%20picture.jpgThe Pensacola New Journal reported on a story yesterday that, based on what was reported, concerns me as a criminal defense attorney who practices criminal law primarily in Pensacola. My comment here has nothing to do with the sinister nature of taking wedding gifts from a wedding; I think someone stealing something from anyone else should suffer consequences for their criminal acts taking into consideration the motivation for their behavior. Furthermore, I don’t have knowledge of all of the evidence that may exist in the case; however, from reading the arrest report and from what I read in the newspaper I see a dearth of evidence that resulted in another young couple being treated very callously not only by the Pensacola News Journal but also by the Pensacola Police. What I take issue with is the way this case was reported and what measures law enforcement took to make a very “mine-run” case seem like something more sensational than it really was.

Apparently, the police department was informed that a young lady who worked at the Pensacola Yacht Club had used a department store gift card that had been stolen from the table of wedding gifts at a recent wedding at the Yacht Club. The Pensacola New Journal the day after this young lady’s arrest, ran a front page article about some of the wedding gifts being stolen, including the mug shot of the young woman. (I mean no disrespect to the young couple whose wedding gifts were stolen; their loss and frustration hopefully didn’t take too much away from the joy of their wedding day).

What bothered me about this case is not only what was reported in the article but the method in which the story was reported. What evidence exists against his woman other than the girl worked at the Yacht Club, she appeared briefly at the Yacht Club when she wasn’t scheduled to work and bought her children clothes with a gift card that was apparently purchased by someone as a gift for the young couple? (Haven’t we all gone into our work on our day off before?; was there any other evidence during the woman’s tenure working at the Yacht Club that she had been dishonest?). Allegedly, according the Pensacola New Journal, there was approximately $1100 in gifts taken from the gift table during the wedding — 24 out of 30 envelopes contained gift cards and checks were taken. .

Apparently, Pensacola police used the fact that the employee had used the gift card as probable cause to obtain a search warrant from a judge and then proceeded to break down the front door of her home at around 6:30 a.m. the day after they received the warrant. The police had no other evidence before they took the barbarian measure of busting down this families front door other than she had been at the Yacht Club on her day off and had used a department store card which had apparently been intended to be given to the new couple.

What most Pensacolians and Florida citizens in general may not know now is that no longer is it required that the police must “knock and announce” before they break down the front door of your home after they claim they have probable cause and present it in writing to a judge before she or he signs a warrant. In Hudson v. Michigan, 547 U.S. 586 (2006) the U.S. Supreme Court held that the violation of the long-standing “”knock and announce”” rule does not require exclusion of all evidence found in a search. This new law was followed by Florida’s Supreme Court in Jenkins v. State, 978 So.2d 116, 130 (Fla. 2008)

What people may not also realize is that a judge signs a warrant to search someone’s home merely based on “probable cause” to believe a crime has been committed. This doesn’t mean the police have any thing close to proof beyond a reasonable doubt required for a conviction before they can use a battering ram to break down your front door while you and your family are sleeping.

When I read this front page new journal article entitled “Wedding Crasher Cashes In,” which included the Pensacola paper even publishing a photograph of the employee, I was disgusted. First, what evidence was cited in the article other than the police had that this girl had possibly used a gift card that was given as a gift to the wedding couple? Could she have found it in the parking lot? Could it have been accidentally dropped by the real wedding “bandits.” But to add insult to the injury, the New Journal felt the article worthy to publish this article on the front page using the title of a recent popular movie to gain attention and sell papers. Did they even consider that this employee is considered innocent until proven guilty?
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The lead story on Pensacola television last night and in the Pensacola News Journal today was a lead story involving an elderly man who was accused of molesting two teenage girls while the girls worked on his ice cream truck two years ago. I represented this old fellow at trial in February of 2006 and the all female jury, after considering the actual evidence against him, cleared him of all charges relating to molesting either girl.

Unbeknown st to me, the elderly man, who has only a small social security pension on which to live, had recently joined with another elderly man and were selling ice cream in the same areas where he sold ice cream prior to the charges being brought against him two years ago. Apparently, someone or some people in the neighborhoods reported to the media, or reported to the Santa Rosa Sheriff’s Office who themselves reported to the media, that he had attempted to lure one of the children to get into the van to pick out their ice cream.

Now there is a media frenzy. I hope is stalls out. The paper included quotes by the prosecutor’s office head supervisor in Milton, who prosecuted the elderly man before, that his office was “actively interested” in investigating the old man’s activities. Such reporting by the media, in my opinion, without any confirmation of the sources of such information is reckless when the consequences of merely reporting this type of story about a citizen is horrendous. I guess reporters want hot stories; their careers depend on writing sensational articles that sell newspapers and get people to watch their news programs. But in cases involving sexual abuse mere allegations forever brand someone – many people will never believe he didn’t commit the crime even though he was found not guilty of such conduct before. Is this because we as human beings want to believe the worst in each other?