On Jan. 20, 2018, a California Highway Patrol officer stopped local radio host Marcus Victor, who was reporting on mudslides in the area, and seized his press pass. Victor and two of his colleagues were briefly detained and threatened with arrest for attempting to enter a “public exclusion zone.”
Victor, a program host for KZAA 96.5 FM, told the Freedom of the Press Foundation that he was driving to Montecito, California, where he planned to interview a local resident about the mudslides in the area, when his car was stopped by a CHP officer. Victor said that there were three other people in the car with him — two KZAA colleagues, who each had a press pass, and a local resident who knew the person that Victor planned to interview.
Victor said that he and his colleagues showed their press passes to the CHP officer, whom he identified as “T. Adrianse,” but the officer did not believe that the press passes were authentic.
Victor said that CHP officer Adrianse photographed him, as well as his drivers license and license plate, and then threatened to arrest him for being in an exclusionary zone and for possession of (what the officer believed to be) a fraudulent press pass.
Victor was released without being arrested, but he was unable to complete the interview (since he couldn’t get access to the exclusion zone) and his press pass was never returned to him.
On Jan. 10, Santa Barbara County declared a “public safety exclusion zone” near Montecito, California, due to dangerous mudslides. Under California law, authorities can prevent members of the public from accessing exclusion zones, but they are supposed to allow any “duly authorized representative of any news service, newspaper, or radio or television station” to enter the area.
The Santa Barbara California Highway Patrol told the Freedom of the Press Foundation that it has had issues in the past with non-journalists attempting to access exclusion zones.
“I will let you know we have an issue with people posing as press employees to gain access to the evacuation zone,” Santa Barbara CHP officer Jonathan Gutierrez said. “Every time there is a disaster there is always an issue of looters.”
Gutierrez said that Adrianse, the officer who stopped Victor, believed that the press pass looked to be homemade and therefore fraudulent.
“The press passes looked to be fake and could have easily been home made on a basic printer,” he said. “The officer obtained the alleged press pass and called the sergeant on duty, he took a picture and forwarded it to the sergeant who also agreed the passes looked to be fake.”
Gutierrez also said that officer Adrianse had other reasons to suspect that Victor was not a legitimate journalist covering the mudslides. He said that Adrianse had tried to verify that Victor was a real journalist by using his mobile phone to search online for KZAA’s coverage of the mudslides. When he found KZAA’s Facebook page and saw that it had not posted or shared any stories about the mudslides, he concluded that Victor was not really a journalist on assignment.
“The officer believed Mr. Lopez was not doing a story about the Montecito mudslide but abusing his position as an employee at a local radio station to travel freely in and out the Montecito Evacuation zone,” Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez added that Victor and other journalists seeking to access the exclusion zone should apply for official press passes from the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department.
Victor told the Freedom of the Press Foundation that the KZAA press passes were of “poor quality,” but he was still surprised to be stopped because CHP officers had previously accepted the passes.
“In this zone, there were several roadblocks/checkpoints which we got through, but this officer decided our passes were fraudulent,” he said.