Jury acquits Des Moines Register reporter arrested while covering a protest last spring

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Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri tells the story of her May 2020 arrest while on the stand at her trial, March 10, 2021. — Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

A Polk County jury took less than two hours on Wednesday to acquit Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri of the two misdemeanor charges she was facing. The charges resulted from Sahouri’s May 2020 arrest by a Des Moines Police Department officer while she covering a Black Lives Matter protest.

Sahouri had been charged with failure to disperse and interfering with official acts. Both charges carried the potential for fines and up to 30 days in jail. Spenser Robnett — Sahouri’s boyfriend at the time, who had accompanied her to the May 31, 2020 protest near Merle Hay Mall in Des Moines to help ensure her safety — was arrested on the same charges and went on trial along with Sahouri. The jury also found him not guilty on both counts.

The prosecution alleged that Sahouri and Robnett failed to leave the protest area even though they were “within hearing distance” of the order to disperse issued by the DMPD about 90 minutes before the police began arresting people. Both said they never heard the order during the loud, chaotic protest. DMPD Officer Luke Wilson, who pepper-sprayed and then arrested Sahouri, claimed that with the assistance with Robnett, she tried to pull away from him after he seized her. That was the basis of the interfering with official acts charges. Sahouri and Robnett denied that happened.

During her testimony on Tuesday, Sahouri explained why she didn’t attempt to leave the scene as Wilson approached her.

“I didn’t think it was a good idea to run from officers, because I wasn’t doing anything wrong,” Sahouri said on the witness stand. “I put up my hands and said ‘I’m press, I’m press,’ and he grabbed me and pepper-sprayed me and told me, ‘That’s not what I asked.’”

Wilson was wearing a body camera at the time of the arrest but it was not turned on. The equipment DMPD uses allows the video from a camera that hasn’t been switched on to be accessed for up to eight days after an incident, but DMPD did not attempt to preserve that footage even though Sahouri’s arrest became a high-profile case the night it happened.

According to DMPD and the Polk County Attorney’s Office, which prosecuted Sahouri and Robnett, this failure to preserve potential key evidence was inadvertent.

There was video footage played during the trial from the body camera of a different officer who arrived shortly after Sahouri was pepper-sprayed, arrested and handcuffed with zip-ties.

The video shows a handcuffed Sahouri saying, “This is my job. This is my job. I’m just doing my job. … I was sent here. … I’m a journalist.”

Another Register reporter, Katie Akin, was also covering the May 31 protest, and she approached police officer and explained that Sahouri was a reporter from the Register assigned to cover the protest. Sahouri had left her press credentials in her car, but Akin was wearing hers. The police ignored Akin’s explanation.

After she was put into a police vehicle to be transported to jail, Sahouri continued reporting, uploading a video recounting her arrest to Twitter.

Neither Akin nor other reporters still at the protest scene after the order to disperse were arrested.

Even if there had been a question as to whether Sahouri was a journalist doing her job at the time of her arrest, there was no confusion over those facts afterwards. Polk County Attorney John Sarcone refused to drop the charges against Sahouri despite international outcry that her arrest was a violation of press freedom.

Sarcone has not publicly commented on his decision to prosecute Sahouri, except in an email reply to the Register he sent in August.

“We strongly disagree with how this matter has been characterized and will do our talking in the courtroom, which is the proper place to deal with this case,” he wrote.

If Sarcone had any evidence that Sahouri was anything other than a journalist doing her job during the May 31 protest, it was not introduced during the trial.

Instead, Assistant County Attorney Brad Kincade told the members of the six-person jury during his closing argument that the law required them to ignore the fact Sahouri was a journalist covering an event of public importance when she was arrested. Kincade said the law makes no exception for members of the press.

Kincade also asked the jury to believe Officer Wilson’s version of events, and DMPD’s explanation that the failure to preserve to body camera footage of the arrest was unintentional.

The jury, as mentioned above, took less than two hours to acquit Sahouri and Robnett of all charges.

Sahouri was the only Iowa journalist arrested while covering the protests that occurred following the May 25 killing of George Floyd by members of the Minneapolis Police Department, but she was far from the only journalist arrested while working last year in the United States.

As protests grew nationwide after Floyd’s death, law enforcement officers in multiple jurisdictions around the country not only engaged in legally-questionable and sometimes violent actions against the largely peaceful protesters. Some officers also targeted journalists who were covering the protests.

In September, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said 238 incidents, “including physical assaults, arrests, and equipment searches and seizures,” had occurred so far in 2020. “[M]ore than three quarters of which occurred while journalists were documenting the Black Lives Matter protests, and law enforcement officers were responsible for most of them.

According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, at least 126 journalists were detained or arrested while doing their jobs in 2020. In most cases, the reporters were released with no charges being filed or charges were dropped. Only about a dozen reporters around the country faced trials or still have charges pending.

In Iowa, DMPD was probably the most aggressive and violent local police department during last summer’s protests. One day after Sahouri was pepper-sprayed and arrested, Akin was covering a protest against police violence on the lawn of the Iowa Capitol Building when a DMPD officer deliberately pepper-sprayed her in the face.

Akin, who was taking video the protest on her phone, was exiting the area following the police issuing an order to disperse. She was holding up her press ID, and can be heard in the video loudly identifying herself as a member of the press and an employee of the Register 17 times in 30 seconds before a DMPD officer walks up to her and fires pepper-spray directly into her face.

Akin was not arrested or detained. DMPD has said it is conducting a review of the officer pepper-spraying Akin, but has not released further information regarding this.

Shortly after the jury delivered its verdict on Wednesday afternoon, Sahouri, who had used Twitter to report about her arrest even while handcuffed in the back of a police vehicle, took to Twitter again to mark her acquittal.

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