An attorney for a reporter who was pinned to the ground, handcuffed and taken into custody by sheriff’s deputies while covering the arrest of an anti-police protester is asking Friday for his client to be declared “factually innocent.”
Josie Huang’s attorney, Harland Braun, wrote in a letter to Sheriff Alex Villanueva and Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey that the reporter for KPCC and LAist qualifies for a factual innocence finding “because she was arrested without probable cause” and not criminally charged.
“The uncontradicted recorded evidence of the entire incident proves she was factually innocent of the charged offense and that there was no probable cause for her arrest,” Braun wrote in the letter.
Huang was taken into custody Sept. 13 outside St. Francis Hospital in Lynwood, where two deputies were being treated after being shot while sitting in their patrol SUV in Compton several hours earlier.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department claimed Huang didn’t have proper media credentials, failed to properly identify herself as a reporter and was “interfering with a lawful arrest” of one of the protesters.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva later doubled down on that contention, saying Huang got “right up on the shoulder” of a deputy trying to make an arrest, and calling her actions more “activism” than journalism.
Video from Huang’s cellphone subsequently surfaced, showing her repeatedly identifying herself as a reporter, shouting “KPCC,” and saying, “You’re hurting me.”
Prosecutors on Thursday cited insufficient evidence to file a case against Huang, writing that it “does not appear that she was intentionally attempting to interfere with the deputies.” Prosecutors said she also was “not given the opportunity to comply with their demand” to back up.
In the letter to the sheriff and the district attorney, her lawyer wrote, “While Ms. Huang was in jail, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department tweeted from its official account that Ms. Huang did not have proper press credentials displayed and that she was interfering with a lawful arrest by its deputies. Even after Ms. Huang published video contradicting the department’s tweets, Sheriff Alex Villanueva recklessly continued to repeat the false assertions in interviews with KTLA and the Associated Press.”
Braun added that he finds it “difficult to believe that Sheriff Alex Villanueva made such false public statements because the contrary evidence was immediately available to him proving the statements were false.”
“Moreover, Ms. Huang has not been afforded the decency of a retraction of these false broadcasted statements. These false statements by the sheriff have resulted in foreseeable threats to Ms. Huang and her family,” Braun wrote.
Huang’s attorney noted that state law requires the sheriff to decide whether there is evidence of factual innocence, and said the sheriff and district attorney can “spare a few minutes to read the reports and review the online video and audio recordings.” If either side denies the petition, state law allows Huang to file for relief in Los Angeles Superior Court and gives her the ability to subpoena the sheriff and the district attorney to “explain their conduct to the court,” Braun said.
Inspector General Max Huntsman — who is investigating Huang’s arrest — has said he is still waiting to receive materials from the sheriff’s department to conduct a more thorough probe. However, he questioned the veracity of statements by Villanueva and the department about the arrest.
“Unfortunately, all evidence we have currently gathered suggests that significant parts of the claims made by the (sheriff’s) department may have been false,” Huntsman told the Civilian Oversight Commission. “The information we have gathered is preliminary and not intended to substitute for a complete investigation.”
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press — a coalition of 64 media organizations — has also called on the sheriff’s department to drop the citation it issued to Huang, who spent about five hours in custody.
The group echoed concerns expressed by other media groups that have disputed Villanueva’s version of the arrest, and called on the department “to take immediate steps to prevent another incident like the arrest of (Huang).”
The letter from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press accused deputies of violating Huang’s constitutional rights.
The Los Angeles Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists wrote a letter to Huntsman last week asking that his office make public all information it gathers in the investigation.
“The department’s treatment of Huang threatens to have a chilling effect on journalists across the county. We cannot overstate the importance of a thorough investigation by your office,” chapter president David Zahniser wrote.
The commission asked county attorneys last week to prepare a report on legal responsibilities involved in law enforcement activities at protests — with some members calling on Villanueva to resign.
Villanueva brushed aside the criticism, calling the commission a “political body appointed by the Board of Supervisors,” with whom he has repeatedly clashed on budget and other issues.
Villanueva apologized last week for a separate incident involving one of his deputies, who shined his flashlight at a television camera operated by a Fox11 crew that was documenting the arrest of a suspect at a fire.
“Unbelievable. Look at this LA County Sheriff’s Deputy shining his flashlight directly into our @foxla camera, trying to prevent us from recording an arrest made at fire,” reporter Gigi Graciette tweeted. “Said we weren’t allowed to videotape. What? We are standing on sidewalk where law clearly allows us to be.”
Villanueva responded soon after with his own tweet.
“I have personally spoken to @GigiGraciette and apologized on behalf of @LASDHQ for the wrongful actions of one of our personnel while she and @FoxLA were reporting on an arrest,” Villanueva said.
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