A Tribune reporter on Wednesday was found guilty of criminal trespass for passing through an unlocked gate posted with a "No trespassing sign" as he tried to interview a Chandler police officer under investigation for murder.
The prosecution and conviction of reporter Bryon Wells has far reaching affects, Wells’ attorney, Dan Barr, said after Judge Ronald Karp read the verdict in Chandler Municipal Court.
"This is an issue that affects all journalists," Barr said. "It affects everybody’s right to know."
Barr argued in court papers that appellate courts in four other states have found that "No Trespassing" signs are not sufficient notice for someone going on a property for a lawful purpose.
"In Bryon’s case it was not only lawful, it is constitutionally protected," Barr said.
Wells passed the sign with no criminal intent and he was there simply to do his job as a reporter, Barr said.
Prosecutor Caron Close argued that Wells’ intent for being there was not "licensed, authorized or otherwise privileged" as clearly stated in Arizona statute and that the First Amendment does not protect reporters who break the law.
"This is the law and it does apply to everybody," Close said. "The verdict is correct."
Everyone agreed on the facts. Wells went to the home of then-Chandler police officer Daniel Lovelace on Nov. 6.
Wells said he went there to give Lovelace a chance to comment on speculation that he might be charged with second-degree murder the next day in the Oct. 11, onduty shooting death of Dawn Rae Nelson, 35. Lovelace was charged Nov. 7. He was fired from the Chandler Police Department on Nov. 13.
Wells said he saw the sign but he didn’t believe he was trespassing because in his experience as a police reporter, people who are arrested for trespassing are usually people who refuse to leave a place or who are squatters.
He rang the doorbell and Lovelace’s wife, Tricia Debbs, came around the corner of the house.
Debbs testified at the May 1 trial that she asked Wells if he could read the sign. After a brief exchange, she asked Wells to leave and he did.
Barr said the conviction sets a precedent that makes a criminal out of deliverymen, postal carriers, Girl Scouts selling cookies, religious solicitors and anyone else who might ring a doorbell.
He doubts that the Chandler Police Department or any other police department normally investigates, much less answers such minor calls.
"What happened here is completely over the top," Barr said.
"I wouldn’t have prosecuted the case if I didn’t think I was right," Close said.
Karp fined Wells $300 and placed him on one year unsupervised probation. Wells left the courthouse without paying the fine because he plans to appeal.
Karp found that Wells was not invited onto the property and that the "fence and sign together manifested a clear intent to forbid intrusion upon the property."
"The property’s owner (sic) personal privacy outweighs the Defendant’s desire, as a newspaper reporter, to obtain information on behalf of the public (sometimes referred to as the public’s right to know)," Karp wrote in his verdict.
Close added that many trespassing cases she prosecutes involve people who refuse to leave someone’s property, but in this case the sign told Wells to leave.
Wells said he didn’t believe he could get a fair trial in Chandler.
The Scottsdale City Attorney’s Office handled the prosecution after the Chandler city attorney declared a conflict of interest.