U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Reporter Jack Smith IV charged with obstruction at Standing Rock

Incident Details

Date of Incident
February 22, 2017

Arrest/Criminal Charge

Unnecessary use of force?
Status of Seized Equipment
Returned in full
Search Warrant Obtained

Equipment Damage

Equipment Broken
Jack Smith IV

Jack Smith IV on the ground at Standing Rock

— Jack Smith IV
February 1, 2018 - Update

North Dakota authorities return equipment a year after seizure, but with damage

Journalist Jack Smith IV confirmed to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker in 2022 that all of his equipment seized by law enforcement during his February 2017 arrest in Morton County, North Dakota, was eventually returned.

Smith was covering police efforts to clear protests at the Standing Rock reservation on Feb. 22 when Morton County Sheriff’s deputies arrested and charged him with physical obstruction of government function. A state judge dismissed the case due to a technicality on Dec. 7.

Smith told the Tracker that authorities returned his laptop and camera equipment several months after the charges against him were dropped, approximately a year after they had been seized.

Smith said his camera was “strangely damaged” when it was returned. He paid to have the camera professionally cleaned, at which point the camera started working again. He said his laptop was returned with no damage.

The Morton County Sheriff’s Department did not respond to a request for comment.

December 7, 2017 - Update

Charges dropped

North Dakota judge dismissed all charges against Smith on Dec. 7, 2017, Mic reported.

After the state of North Dakota failed to amend its criminal complaint against Smith to specify details of his alleged criminal activity, Smith’s lawyer filed a motion for the charges to be dismissed, and the judge granted that motion on Nov. 14,.

North Dakota authorities have still not returned Smith’s equipment to him.

“It was outrageous that Jack Smith IV was ever arrested simply for doing his job,” Mic executive news director Kerry Lauerman said in a statement. “We are glad the state of North Dakota came to its senses and dropped the charges, and now ask that officials immediately turn over his property, a camera and computer, which they have now had for nine months.”

February 22, 2017

Jack Smith IV, a journalist with Mic, was arrested on Feb. 22, 2017, while documenting law enforcement’s efforts to clear protesters from the Oceti Sakowin camp at the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota.

Smith described his arrest in a first-person account published on Mic:

When it came time for police to move in, they slowly marched forward in a line on the road above the camp. They stopped at the head of a camp entrance, flag road, leading many to believe the media could be at a safe distance to film while police entered camp.

But the police didn't veer down the hill along a separate entrance into the camp, as expected. Instead, they sprinted forward on the road toward a handful of protesters and the media covering them, batons waving in full riot gear. Burdened by the weight of luggage, a camera and a hefty portable battery there was no way I was going to continue to retreat quickly enough. They were five feet away. I dropped to my knees, head bowed, hands up. Nine of us were arrested at first — me, an independent journalist and seven water protectors — charged with obstructing a government function (Mic is contesting this charge).

Smith was charged with physical obstruction of government function, a Class A misdemeanor that could result in a year in jail. Police also seized his camera and laptop, which have not been returned to him.

Smith is scheduled to go to trial in June 2018.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].