Independent journalist cited for trespassing in Florida city hall
Sheets, a member of the National Press Photographers Association, is a self-described “copwatch reporter” who runs a YouTube channel focused on police misconduct and corruption.
The local law that Sheets was accused of violating, Ordinance 1872-17, prohibits filming people without permission in certain areas of city-controlled buildings, including Punta Gorda City Hall and City Hall Annex.
Ordinance 1872-17 states:
“Except within the City Council Chambers, conference rooms, and other locations in which a public meeting is being conducted pursuant to a public notice, it shall be unlawful and a violation of this Ordinance to record video and/or sound within City-owned, controlled, and leased property, without the consent of all persons whose voice or image is being recorded. … Any person who refuses to cease the unconsented to video and/or sound recording, and refuses to immediately leave the premises following the request of the City Manager or his designee, shall be considered as a trespasser.”
On Dec. 20, Sheets used a body camera to record himself going to the Punta Gorda City Clerk’s Office and making a records request for a copy of Ordinance 1872-17. Sheets later posted the video recorded by his body camera on YouTube.
The video shows Sheets entering the City Hall Annex building and going to the city clerk’s office, where he makes a request for a copy of the ordinance. Two city hall staffers who appear on the video tell Sheets that they do not have their permission and film them and ask him to stop recording.
“You don’t have our permission to record us,” one of the staffers tells Sheets.
“You’re a public official in a public building,” Sheets replies.
“This is a staff area,” the staffer says. “It’s not a public meeting area.”
Later in the video, Sheets goes to the Punta Gorda police station and asks to speak with the police chief. An officer, later identified as Lt. Justin Davoult, then approaches him in the lobby to inform them that the police chief will not speak with him. Davoult also issues two trespass warnings to Sheets, which ban Sheets from returning to Punta Gorda City Hall and City Hall Annex for one year.
“Before we go any further, this is what we’re going to do,” Davoult tells Sheets in the video. “The chief’s not available to speak to you. OK, so this is what you’ve got. This is a trespass warning for City Hall and City Annex, OK, for both addresses over at City Hall. You are no longer to be at or on that property for a period of one year or you will face arrest.”
Sheets later filed a personnel complaint against Davoult, accusing
him of “unlawful trespass issued.” The police department conducted an
internal investigation, which cleared Davoult of any wrongdoing.
circumstances detailed on Dec. 20, 2018 confirmed that Andrew Sheets
was in violation of the city ordinance,” the investigation report
states. “This investigation has determined Lieutenant Justin Davoult’s
actions were lawful, proper, and consistent with department policy and
therefore is Exonerated from the allegation of unlawful trespass
Sheets believes that the prohibition on filming in Punta Gorda City Hall may be unconstitutional.
April 2017, the Punta Gorda Police Department asked the Florida State
Attorney’s Office to bring wiretapping charges against someone who had
been caught filming inside the city hall building. The State Attorney’s
Office declined to prosecute, explaining in a felony warrant request disposition notice
that “a citizen’s right to film government officials, in the discharge
of their duties in a public place is a basic, vital, and
well-established liberty safeguarded by the First Amendment.”
The constitutionality of the city ordinance has never been tested in court.
Osterreicher, the general counsel for the National Press Photographers
Association, told Freedom of the Press Foundation that the City of Punta
Gorda may have violated Sheets’ First Amendment rights when it issued
the trespass warning.
“Aside from being based upon a
constitutionally suspect ordinance, the trespass notice issued to Mr.
Sheets is a blatant violation of his First Amendment rights and chills
his ability to gather and disseminate information on important matter of
public concern,” Osterreicher said.
Melissa Reichert, a spokeswoman for the city, told The Charlotte Sun, a local newspaper, that the city believes the ordinance is valid and will continue to enforce it.
“The city has enforced Ordinance 1872-17 as provided therein since its adoption in May 2017,” Reichert told the paper. “Unless and until a court of competent jurisdiction determines otherwise, the city staff believes the ordinance is valid.”