State Supreme Court Declines to Hear Indy Contempt Case

County Judge's Ruling Stands; Paper Can Hand Over Photos or Face Punishment

A youth is identified after the March 14 gang brawl.
Paul Wellman

The California State Supreme Court on Wednesday denied a petition from the Independent and staff photographer Paul Wellman asking the court to review a Santa Barbara County Superior Court judge’s decision to hold the paper and Wellman in contempt of court for not handing over photos Wellman captured following a murder on State Street March 14 of last year.

The decision to not hear the case, similar to the choice made by the Court of Appeals, means the paper and Wellman have run out of avenues to appeal Superior Court Judge Brian Hill’s November decision. Public defender Karen Atkins asked the paper via subpoena for any photos taken on State Street March 14, the day 15-year-old Luis Angel Linares was stabbed to death during a gang melee. Atkins is defending Ricardo Juarez, who was 14-years-old at the time, and is being charged as an adult for the murder of Linares. Many media outlets, including the Independent, covered the event. The Santa Barbara Daily Soundafter a fight-and the Santa Barbara News-Press both handed over their photos. It is unclear whether or not television stations handed over video from the day of the incident.

Wellman took roughly 350 photos in the hours following the incident. Mike Cooney, attorney for the Independent, received an e-mail notification informing him of the decision. “I’m not surprised,” he said. “Even though I’m devoted to the concept the subpoena was overbroad, it’s difficult for appellate courts to review during criminal proceedings.” Wellman, who potentially faces imprisonment if he continues to ignore the demands of the court, and the paper, which faces fines, hasn’t yet decided what to do.

In explaining at the time of his decision to find Wellman and the paper in contempt, Hill said, “Any one of these photographs might cause the defense to rethink the way they were preparing (their case). Though California has a Shield Law to protect reporters and photographers in the media, it doesn’t extend to every situation.” According to one precedent-setting case, Delaney vs. Superior Court, there are four factors which go into determining whether photos are protected by the Shield law, including whether or not the information was sensitive or confidential. “It seems to me all of those factors lead to favoring the publication of all those photos,” Hill said in November.

After Atkins, who couldn’t immediately be reached for comment, informed the court Thursday morning of the high court’s decision, Hill set a hearing for March 20 at 10:30 a.m. to address the contempt issue.

UPDATED:The publisher of the Santa Barbara Independent, Randy Campbell, had the following written response to the Supreme Court decision:

“Although we are sympathetic to the Public Defender aggressively representing her client, it is disappointing and infuriating that the lower court apparently thought so little of the legal rights extended by the citizens of California specifically to the press as to ignore them.

“Judge Brian Hill’s original decision is overbroad, while the law is specific and requires procedure which was not followed. That the appellate courts choose not to overturn Hill’s original decision seemingly without even reviewing the actual facts of this case or the particulars of the law likely establishes an invasive and potentially precedent-setting intrusion into the difficult and delicate process of gathering news in an open society.”


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