Florida Cops Threaten News Crew with Arrest Outside School

Austin Johns


A television news crew was threatened with arrest if they dared enter a 500 foot “safety zone” surrounding a school in Florida this week, even though it is not even school property.

However, the 27-year-old school teacher that is accused of taking a 15-year-old girl into a closet in his classroom for heavy make-out sessions was not arrested.

The Putnam County Sheriff’s Office said that Palatka High School English teacher Austin Johns did not commit a crime because he did not have sex with the student, even though they were planning on doing so.

But a school resource officer who works for the same sheriff’s office decided the news crew did not have any legitimate business in the vicinity of the school, which is why he threatened them with arrest.

Florida Statute 810.0975 defines a “safety zone” as follows:

(1) For the purposes of this section, the term “school safety zone” means in, on, or within 500 feet of any real property owned by or leased to any public or private elementary, middle, or high school or school board and used for elementary, middle, or high school education.

(2)(a) Each principal or designee of each public or private school in this state shall notify the appropriate law enforcement agency to prohibit any person from loitering in the school safety zone who does not have legitimate business in the school safety zone or any other authorization, or license to enter or remain in the school safety zone or does not otherwise have invitee status in the designated safety zone.
(b) During the period from 1 hour prior to the start of a school session until 1 hour after the conclusion of a school session, it is unlawful for any person to enter the premises or trespass within a school safety zone or to remain on such premises or within such school safety zone when that person does not have legitimate business in the school safety zone or any other authorization, license, or invitation to enter or remain in the school safety zone. Any person who violates this subsection commits a misdemeanor of the second degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082 or s. 775.083.
(c) Any person who does not have legitimate business in the school safety zone or any other authorization, license, or invitation to enter or remain in the school safety zone who shall willfully fail to remove himself or herself from the school safety zone after the principal or designee, having a reasonable belief that he or she will commit a crime or is engaged in harassment or intimidation of students entering or leaving school property, requests him or her to leave the school safety zone commits a misdemeanor of the second degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082 or s. 775.083. Nothing in this section shall be construed to abridge or infringe upon the right of any person to peaceably assemble and protest.
(3) This section does not apply to residents or persons engaged in the operation of a licensed commercial business within the school safety zone.

So for this charge to stick, the arresting officer would have to prove the news crew did not have a “legitimate business” in the school. But the teacher was suspended. The parents are outraged. And the school district is clamming up.

So the media has every right to try to get to the bottom of this story, so it most definitely is legitimate business. Also note that the law makes it clear that peaceful assembly in order to protest is allowed within this safety school zone because it is protected by the First Amendment, so there is no reason why a news crew is not allowed to pursue First Amendment-protected activity within this safety zone.

But the teacher has absolutely no legitimate business to swap spit with a 15-year-old student inside a closet, so perhaps he should be the one arrested for entering this safety zone.

According to WJXT4:

According to a Putnam County Sheriff’s Office report, the girl told detectives she and 27-year-old Austin Johns began communicating over the Internet after school, then began text messaging each other. She said things intensified, telling investigators the two would meet before and after class.

“Once the room door was locked and the blinds were closed, Johns and her would go into a large closet and begin to kiss each other,” the report reads.

In a sworn statement, the girl said “the two had talked about having sex but it had not happened as of yet.”

Johns was not arrested, and deputies closed the case, saying, “A criminal charge is not warranted at this time. However, Johns has clearly violated ethical issues involving his employment as a teacher.”

The father of the girl who made the accusations said he believes Johns should be prosecuted.

Channel 4’s Vic Micolucci went to the school for answers, but didn’t get many. A school resource deputy threatened to arrest him if he didn’t leave the vicinity, even though he wasn’t on campus. The deputy said Channel 4’s cameras were not allowed within 500 feet of any school property, citing it was a “safety zone.” The district declined any interviews.

Unfortunately, the news station will probably allow this threat to go uncontested, which will give these school resource officers even more reason to make unlawful threats.

About Carlos Miller

Carlos Miller is founder and publisher of Photography is Not a Crime, which began as a one-man blog in 2007 to document his trial after he was arrested for photographing police during a journalistic assignment. He is also the author of The Citizen Journalist's Photography Handbook, which can be purchased through Amazon.

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  • rick

    Once again “safety” trumps freedom of the press.
    Go Safety!

    • Tijuana Joe

      As they say in New Hampshire, Live Safe of Die!

  • Bill Larson

    The Statute lays out the requirements for the offense, and the news crew did not meet those requirements.

    “having a reasonable belief that he or she will commit a crime or is engaged in harassment or intimidation of students entering or leaving school property,”

    I don’t think anyone could reasonably believe that the news crew intended to commit any of these elements. This is why it pays to keep a copy of the statutes on your mobile devices, so you can check if their threats have any weight to them.

    • Proud GrandPa

      Wrong statute. Try contributing to the delinquency of a minor. I am sure our legitimate LEOs could work with that. I would examine the student’s blouse and see the disturbed area around the breast. Let a court decide if that is evidence of illegal touching there.


      What’s the worst that could happen to the LEOs should the case be tossed? Nothing happens to the LEOs. Remember if the perp sues the city, the cops almost never have to pay. If I were an honest cop in that city, I’d be courageous and make the arrest.


      • Guest

        Did you actually read the comment you replied to? You wrote in full legible sentences. So how is it possible that your reading comprehension is that bad?

        • Proud GrandPa

          HaHa. You got me there. Yes, I actually read it but confused it with someone else’s comments. Just had a senior moment, that’s all. No offense to Bill Larson with whom I agree.
          Now where did I put my oat meal and reading glasses?

      • http://excoplawstudent.wordpress.com/ ExCop-Lawyer

        It doesn’t matter, that’s the statute that they cited, and the statute that a U.S. District Court told the state not to use unless they had reasonable suspicion that a crime would be committed or a specific student would be harassed.

      • Bill Larson

        I didn’t defend the teacher, only the news crew who had full rights to do what they had plans on doing in front of the school.

  • Jeffrey Marcus Gray

    Putnam County is just one county to the south west of me. I have been wanting to do some 1st amendment test in Putnam for a while now and this looks like the motivation go ahead and head on down there. So I will be going to the public side walk just outside of this school property.

    Putnam County Sheriff’s Offfice is one of the few sheriffs departments that you can still pick up a live feed from there radios from my police scanner app. When I go I will have the scanner going and record it.

    • http://hlwp.org Texas Killdozer

      Much respect to you, sir. Keep us posted on the results!

    • Proud GrandPa

      You need to do the legal spadework first in order to prove you have ‘legitimate business’ in the area. You will need a friend who owns a website or newspaper to sign a contract with you promising payment for your photojournalism at this school and the contract must exchange something of value, say one dollar. That makes it legal.
      I can tell at once that there are doubtless multiplied millions of fathers like me out there who strongly disagree with the cowardly cops who let this perp off without arrest. There are doubtless many honorable police who are willing to make the arrest. Go for it and PUBLISH YOUR STORY! Interview students and staff and neighbors too… especially the neighbors living within 100 feet of the school having a child in the system.

      • steveo

        BS, journalists are journalists because they say they are. That’s the only requirement. Blackstone said, “the freedom of the press is a god given right, not bestowed by any government or law.”

        • Proud GrandPa

          I’d like to believe you. Unfortunately Jeff Gray will be challenged to prove he is a journalist. What will he tell the cops who arrest him? What will his lawyer tell the judge who convicts him?

          I would not want my freedom based upon he-said vs cop said.
          Maybe our ex-Cop Law Student has more for us…

          • http://excoplawstudent.wordpress.com/ ExCop-Lawyer

            The state is enjoined from enforcing subsection (b). To enforce subsection (c), they have to have a reasonable suspicion that you a 1) committing a crime, or 2) engaged in harassment of a student or students. See Gray v. Kohl, 568 F. Supp. 2d 1378 (S.D. Fla. 2008).

            Ask the deputy if he is aware of the federal court order, and if he is interested in being found in contempt of that order.

          • Fotaugrafee

            Mentalities like your own are what’s wrong with this country. Take the dive, protect your rights, even if you think (or KNOW) they’re going to to get trampled all over.

          • Terrence Jeffrey Johnson

            Judges are just corrupt elected officials who couldn’t cut it as practicing lawyers. Cops are dog-shooting union-thug coward government employees. My freedom comes from Almighty God, not some dumb hack from a state who’s citizens can’t poke a hole in a ballot.

          • Rob

            Proud GrandPa, the 1st Amendment applies to ALL citizens, NOT just journalists. Sorry, but he won’t have to prove jack shit.

        • Bridgett Cash

          I disagree. Freedom of the Press is not a “god given right” it is a man given right as in the bill of rights. Last time I checked god didn’t write the bill of rights. Let’s keep this in perspective please and not incorrectly state where our rights come from.

          • Fotaugrafee

            That’s b/c there is no god. 😀

          • Terrence Jeffrey Johnson

            Believe that if you wish, but even our sainted Founding Fathers believed in God. Maybe you should read about “Washington’s Vision”

          • http://excoplawstudent.wordpress.com/ ExCop-Lawyer

            Actually, a majority of the Founding Fathers were Deists. There is even substantial evidence that Washington was among those. Jefferson and Franklin were clearly Deists, with Jefferson editing the Bible to reflect those beliefs. See The Jefferson Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually from the Gospels (Thomas Jefferson, ed., 1813).

            John Adams was a deist, signing a treaty that stated “the Government of the United States … is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” See Treaty of Peace and Friendship Between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary art. 11, U.S.-Tripoli, Jan. 3, 1797, 8 Stat. 154.

            The myth of “Washington’s Vision” was actually created by Mason Locke Weems in 1800, along with the myth of the cherry tree. Washington “believed that an unseen but benevolent power
            guided both the universe and human affairs, and he variously referred to
            this force as “Providence,” the “Almighty Ruler of the Universe,” the “Great Architect of the Universe,” and the “Great Disposer of Events.”” Geoffrey R. Stone, The World of the Framers: A Christian Nation?, 56 UCLA L. Rev. 1, 17-18 (2008). All of these terms were standard Deist terms, and Washington never mentioned Jesus in all of his known letters, writings, and will.

          • Fotaugrafee

            Don’t give two shits what they believed in, I’m not them. They’re not me.

          • Nubby Mcquilicutty

            Pretty sure all the rights in the constitution are consider to be from our” creator” so yes, freedom of press is god given. Thanks for demonstrating the key problem with this countries educational system.

          • http://excoplawstudent.wordpress.com/ ExCop-Lawyer

            Actually the Constitution never mentions God or the Creator, so I doubt that. Furthermore, the Bill of Rights were amendments, and none mention God either.

          • steveo

            just quoting William Blackstone who was a great influence on the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
            Also, in the Glik v. Cunliffe, 1st District said that the rights of journalists and the public at large are “coextensive”. Meaning: Having the same limits, boundaries, or scope

            Blackstone didn’t use the word God, I think, “[T]he principal aim of society is to protect individuals in the enjoyment of those absolute rights, which were vested in them by the immutable laws of nature.” The immutable laws of nature, I suppose is a better term.

          • Chris Dodson

            The Bill of Rights are protected Natural Rights. They are Rights that the government has said they will protect. Get your facts straight.

          • Tom Butler

            Bill of rights didn’t establish the rights, it protects them.

      • Jeffrey Marcus Gray

        PGP, thank you for your concern about my safety.
        Now to address your concerns,any citizen with a blog,a YouTube Channel ,and a camera is a published journalist. I have all three and I am also a Contributor/Correspondent for Carlos Millers PINAC.

        While outside the school on a public sidewalk I will be gathering content for a story about a school resource officer suppressing journalist 1st amendment protected right to freedom of the press. I will be working on behalf of PINAC.

        I will also be continuing my work on school speed zone operations.


        • Proud GrandPa

          Good success to you, Jeff. Blessing upon you. You have friends here.

    • Rob

      Jeff, please go with a buddy that will also have a camera recording.

  • steveo

    I’ve also been meaning to test this law where I live because there are three schools within 2 miles of each other, The high school, a middle school and an elementary school, so this 500 ft of the property line would encompass about a 3 square mile area of sidewalk and public areas. Plus the leos are always lined up in their unmarked cars pulling over the teens for god who knows what, probably going 2 miles over the speed limit and searching the cars.

    • Jeffrey Marcus Gray

      Steve,sounds like a fascinating project! Can’t wait to see some videos.

  • juan santana

    they know better then to try that in Miami and cop telling me not to film ha.that reporter needed to tell the cop that this is still america the we have a first Const.rights to freedom of the press

    • Terrence Jeffrey Johnson

      We should give Miami to Cuba. What a God-awful place

  • steveo

    Plus this is a second degree misdemeanor, which the bail is $120. A 2nd degree is the lowest of the criminal charges and usually means a fine, maybe some probation if convicted, but noticing the liberal nature of the higher courts in FL, especially the FL Supreme Court, this statute would never survive scrutiny if the leos tried to tread on the 1st Amendment. And here we’re not talking about walking onto the school property itself, the leos believe this law gives them the right to banish just about anyone walking on the sidewalks around the school property even waiting for a bus at a county bus stop.

    I might try handing out leaflets by the bus stop which is right in front of the high school while wearing my Re-elect Judge T shirt. I’m not sure waiting for the bus is a good enough reason for them because it only comes every 2 hours, but campaigning should work.

  • steveo

    And as we all know, Florida leos have a tendency, that if the legislature gives them an inch, they take a mile. This is what I call ignorant legislative syndrome. Legislators pass a law, believing or at least hoping that it will be enforced intelligently. (which is an oxymoron in itself “intelligent enforcement”) kind of like “efficient government’.

    The legislators in FL are starting to figure out that that isn’t possible. This is one reason that the Anti-texting legislation was so hard to get through because the lawmakers said “why do we need another law for the leos to pull people over?” There was an amendment placed into the bill at the last hour that specifically forbid the leos from searching and confiscating the devices from people for “evidence” if the leos pulled them over for “texting” and it’s supposed to be a secondary offense, but when the leos get the info on this they’ll probably claim they were sick that day.

    • Terrence Jeffrey Johnson

      What do you expect from a state with so many old coots from New York and Massachusetts?

  • http://excoplawstudent.wordpress.com/ ExCop-Lawyer

    Is the Sheriff’s Office or news station aware that Fla. Stat. § 810.0975(a)-(b) were declared unconstitutional by a U.S. District Court? See Gray v. Kohl, 568 F. Supp. 2d 1378 (S.D. Fla. 2008). Subsection (c) is still valid, but the officer must have a reasonable belief that the subject will commit a crime or engage in harassment of students. The court said that the “term “harassment” is defined as “engag[ing] in a course of conduct directed at a specific person that causes substantial emotional distress in such person and serves no legitimate purpose.”” Id. at 1390.

    Finally, the court issued an injunction, which stated “Subsections 2(a) and 2(b) of § 810.0975, Florida Statutes,are declared unconstitutionally vague. The State of Florida and its officers are hereby permanently enjoined from enforcing these subsections.” Id. at 1395.

    Does the Sheriff’s Office have a comment on violating a federal injunction?

    Does WJXT4 have a comment on the deputy violating a federal injunction?

    • steveo

      Good find, figured the higher courts wouldn’t let this statute go uncontested. This story though is just another confirmation that leos are normally out sick on the days the captain teaches law.

      • http://excoplawstudent.wordpress.com/ ExCop-Lawyer

        LOL, that’s assuming that the captain knows the law.

  • NorthoftheBorder Gold

    That is just gross, the “child” is 15! He is obviously kinda sick.

    • Proud GrandPa

      The real power is with the school board. They can fire the teacher. Ironically in my liberal state they might not fire him for being a sex pervert (no one said the gender of the student) or for the sexual violation, but they would nail him for abuse of his power! Incredibly that’s what our state university girls basketball or gymnastic team did to a male coach who had sex with his adult female students. They sacked him (no pun) for abuse of power. They didn’t care about the bad morals. He could have had sex with minor students not on his team and they’d not care.
      Anyway the school board in FL does have the right to sack this guy. Tell him to go back into the closet! (Sorry, that was too good to resist.)

  • Jude I⚡caяiot

    The teacher shouldn’t be arrested. Fired? Sure. Arrested, no… He didn’t commit a crime, he just intended to. When people INTEND to do things but don’t, there can be many reasons… We need to stop arresting people who intend to do things, because sometimes minds change.

    As for the news crew, yeah, that’s a big crazy that they weren’t allowed.

    • Chris Dodson

      If an adult swaps spit with a teenager under eighteen you better believe he can be charged with a crime.. Corrupting the morals of a minor is indeed a crime.

      • Jude I⚡caяiot

        “Corrupting the morals of a minor”. LOL. Exactly my point. This insanity has to stop.

    • Guest

      In case you missed it, there are numerous laws that call for the arrest of stiff punishment for intention to commit crimes, such as solicitation of murder or solicitations of minors. There is no gray area, it’s pretty common knowledge and the possibility of changing your mind does not exist as a credible defense when it comes to these laws.

    • phantom_surfer

      In case you weren’t aware, there are numerous laws on the books that carry very stiff sentences regarding intent. Two that come to mind are solicitation of murder and the solicitation of minors.

      Changing one’s mind is not considered a credible defense.

      • Jude I⚡caяiot

        What is your point?

    • Jon Quimbly

      If the teenager testifies they did more than kiss, they could charge him with molestation. I’m guessing that hasn’t happened yet.

  • IHateFatChicks

    Cops and LE are stupid, narcissistic sociopaths, pathological liars and troglodytes. Who’s surprised?

  • Fotaugrafee

    Funny, I didn’t think state statutes had the ability to overshoot Freedom of the Press.

  • Cruella DeVille

    I find this rather disturbing. And how was it discovered this was going on? We’re they caught in the act or did one of them come forward?
    I feel that it’s things like this that shows how ass backwards the laws and at times the people that enforce them really are. To threaten arrest on the news people who we’re trying to do a job, yet not to arrest a glorified child molester (I don’t care if the child consented its still disgusting to me and maybe not the right term) is just wrong.
    I am sure he will do it again.

  • http://excoplawstudent.wordpress.com/ ExCop-Lawyer

    Mary Beth Hedstrom, principal of Palatka High School, 386-329-0577.

    Sgt. Jon Kinney, SRO Supervisor, Putnam County SO, 386-329-0800.

    Maj. Gary Bowling, Dir. of Law Enforcement, Putnam County SO, 386-329-0816.

    It would be interesting to learn if these guys even know that subsection (b) was declared unconstitutional and the state was permanently enjoined from enforcing it, and if they are aware, what crime they reasonably suspected the news crew would commit.

  • Alex Masters

    Another reason to take your kids out of gunvernment schools.

    • http://excoplawstudent.wordpress.com/ ExCop-Lawyer

      Yeah, heaven forbid that they learn how to spell.

      • Alex Masters

        They don’t need to be in a GUNvernment school to learn how to spell.

  • Buford Labelle

    This is just great a big city TV Station News Cew is scammed by a local yokel using a law that was mostly declared unconstitutional almost 5 years ago way to WJXT4, hey Carlos why not give the Big Boys a call and let them or maybe I let “Honoryouroath” see this (I know he is a big fan) Ole Jeffer call’em in a New York Second “SCAMMED BY A LOCAL YOKEL”

  • Jon Quimbly

    Christalamode, couldn’t they at least arrest the teacher on a molestation charge?