LIGHTS! CAMERA! LAWSUIT!
Mark Robinson's arrest last year was a rock 'em, sock 'em, action-packed, real-life cop adventure chronicled in both Denver dailies and broadcast by Channels 2, 4, 7 and 9. And if you liked that, you'll love the sequel: a federal lawsuit brought by Robinson in April accusing law enforcement agencies from two counties (along with almost every major news outlet in the city) of violating his constitutional rights.
"Arrests make good copy," says Denver attorney David Lane, who's representing Robinson on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union. "But people's rights are being violated for the sake of sensationalist media." By permitting reporters to "traipse through Mark Robinson's bedroom," Lane says, the police subjected him to an unreasonable search and seizure. And in order to send that message loud and clear to the cops and everybody else, Lane is seeking damages for trespassing, invasion of privacy and outrageous conduct.
Mark Robinson's few minutes of fame were brought on by his tidy sensibilities and lust for young women. According to police, the 35-year-old construction worker cruised bus stops in search of "maids." He would offer the girls jobs cleaning his home and later talk them into posing for nude photographs.
His one-man employment agency was closed in March 1993 after a sixteen-year-old girl told police that Robinson had tried to fondle her. Robinson was arrested a few days later by Jefferson County investigators, who found 197 photographs of 22 nude girls tucked away in the ceiling of his rustic cabin in Coal Creek Canyon.
A subsequent investigation revealed that many of the pictures were taken in Denver, where Robinson had once lived, says Jefferson County sheriff's deputy Wayne Holverson. His office then contacted Denver police, who decided to serve Robinson with a warrant of their own.
Denver investigators required the attendance of at least one sheriff's deputy at Robinson's home for jurisdictional reasons. But, says Holverson, the Denver cops invited a host of others along for the ride. On March 30, 1993, half a dozen sheriff's deputies, plus reporters and photographers from the Rocky Mountain News and four Denver television stations, braved a spring blizzard to accompany Denver cops as they served the warrant on Robinson.
When the police arrived at the cabin, says Holverson, Robinson invited them in. The news crews followed, taking notes and pictures as police cuffed Robinson and patted him down.
Lane says his client made it clear to the reporters that he didn't want them in his home. The way in which Robinson accomplished that depends upon the source. Lane says Robinson "not only told them to get out, he was screaming at them to `Get the hell out.'"
Holverson, who was standing outside while Denver officers made the arrest, says he didn't hear Robinson yell from inside the cabin. Robinson did, however, "spit on the cameras and a reporter."
According to Holverson, Robinson also said he wanted everyone out of his house. "And everyone started to leave," he says. But Lane claims in the suit that when Robinson objected to the reporters' presence, Denver police lieutenant Jerry Frazzini grabbed Robinson by the back of his neck, pushed his face into a television news camera and told him, "Smile for the camera, bucko."
Lane says he expects the official police response to the suit to be that "they were controlling the crime scene, and therefore, they have the right to invite anybody they want. But who the hell are they to issue invitations? They can't invite their mother, they can't invite their friends, they can't invite anybody. No judge I've ever seen would authorize them to send out invitations."
Attorney Ted Halaby, who is representing the Denver Police Department in the suit, says it is premature to discuss defense strategy. But the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department will plead innocent. "We did not invite the media to attend," says assistant Jefferson County attorney Bill Tuthill, who adds that he does not think sheriff's deputies violated any laws. Just in case, though, Tuthill plans to pursue an immunity defense, claiming the officers were simply carrying out their governmental duties.
The most important point the ACLU is trying to make in this case, says Lane, is that police should not be allowed to abuse their powers, and because of that, "the suit is directed more toward the police than the media. The media are like these puppies that go along when their master calls. They almost don't know any better. But the police do."
Nonetheless, Lane has named the News, KWGN Channel 2, KCNC Channel 4, KMGH Channel 7 and KUSA Channel 9 as defendants in the case. Lane says he plans to drop the Denver Post as a defendant in the case because its reporters were not present for the arrest.
Denver attorney Steve Kelley, who is representing Channel 2, says that although state law is not clear in this matter, "I think there's some pretty compelling circumstances in this case for law enforcement to make a decision to have the media along and serve some purpose. They wanted to get the defendant's photograph in the media so other victims could solidify the case by coming forward. The question is whether law enforcement personnel have the right to do that here." As for the media, Kelley says, the issue is whether or not the First Amendment limits trespass claims against them.
Lane says he thinks the case could have repercussions for nationally syndicated police action shows, but Cops executive producer John Langley isn't worried. "It will be interesting to see what happens in court," he says, "but generally speaking, we ride along in patrol cars. We don't usually follow police inside people's homes." In addition, he says, when his show does run someone's photograph, it's careful to either obtain a release from that person or, if need be, conceal the person's identity.
Mark Robinson will have plenty of time to catch all the cop shows now. Last month he pleaded guilty in Jefferson County District Court to sexual exploitation of a child and possession of marijuana, which netted him an eight-year prison term. Two weeks later a Denver district judge sentenced Robinson to two concurrent sixteen-year prison terms for his guilty plea on charges of sexual assault on a child and sexual exploitation of children.
The fact that his client pleaded guilty to such crimes has done nothing to affect Lane's decision to go forward with the suit. "The Bill of Rights was written on the premise that the government is the greatest potential wrongdoer," he says. "The people who drafted it did not care if a person was guilty or not guilty, angelic or otherwise. It's there to control the government.
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