Two years ago, PINAC reported on the story of Tommy Russo, a Hawaiian newspaper publisher arrested for video recording a police traffic checkpoint in public. On July 9, the charge against Russo – obstructing a government operation – was finally dismissed.
Wailuku District Court Judge Kelsey Kawano ruled that Maui Police Officers Rusty Lawson and John Fairchild had no probable cause to arrest Russo for photographing them on Haleakala Highway during their “Operation Recon” traffic checkpoint and dismissed the case.
Russo, the publisher of MauiTime, was filming and questioning the Maui police during “Operation Recon,” a traffic stop aimed at ticketing citizens for driving vehicles with over-sized tires and illegally tinted windows. Russo questioned officers about the purpose and importance of the police checkpoint, which backed up traffic for miles on the highway.
“I stopped to find out why it was so important to back up traffic for miles,” Russo said. “Social media was blowing up my phone, asking what was going on there. I wanted a report from the scene. I was arrested for filming and all other charges from the MPD are ridiculous. The police chose to arrest me in a direct attempt to stop the documenting of their activities.”
After a couple minutes, Officer Lawson gave Russo an unlawful order to leave the area, assaulted Russo on camera, and then arrested Russo for obstructing a government operation, resisting arrest and harassment. Officer Lawson repeatedly told Russo to “stop resisting,” while Russo’s camera recorded Russo complying with every police order. Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA), testified as an expert witness at Russo’s trial. When asked whether Officer Lawson’s order was a lawful time, place, and manner restriction on Russo’s first amendment rights, Osterreicher said
“No…The fact that he was asking Mr. Russo to leave without articulating why; the fact that he was limiting that speech; he was not giving any clear direction as to where Mr. Russo could or couldn’t stand; he just wanted him to leave the area. So that certainly implicates content in terms of he may not have liked what Mr. Russo was doing at the time. It certainly didn’t appear to be content neutral. And, as I said, not leaving reasonable alternate avenues of communication of what he was doing.”
Photography Is Not A Crime has reached out to Russo for comment on whether he intends to sue the Maui Police Department, but Russo has yet to comment.