By Vince Devlin – The Missoulian
POLSON – A weekly newspaper editor arrested by the Montana Highway Patrol while photographing a two-vehicle crash scene pleaded not guilty Wednesday to three misdemeanors.
Vince Lovato of the Lake County Leader is charged with obstructing a peace officer or other public servant, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct.
Lovato appeared with attorney Mike Meloy of Helena and was also accompanied by his wife, Michelle, a reporter for the Leader who photographed her husband as he was led away from the crash site in handcuffs on Oct. 1.
He entered his pleas to Lake County Justice of the Peace Joey Jayne, who scheduled an omnibus hearing for Dec. 1.
Montana Highway Patrolman Tony Isbell, the arresting officer, said on the citations he issued that Lovato was “disobeying (a) lawful command inside (a) crime scene boundary.”
The disorderly conduct charge stems from Lovato allegedly “screaming obscenities while being arrested, causing a public disturbance.”
On the resisting arrest citation, Isbell wrote, “Would not follow commands, pulling away and attempting to escape.”
Lee Banville, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Montana who teaches media law, said it is unusual for journalists, who are protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, to be arrested while doing their jobs.
“It’s highly unusual to see it reach the point where charges are brought against a journalist when they are in the process of reporting in a public space, which a highway is,” Banville said. “Unless you are materially keeping the police from doing what they need to do, you should be allowed to be there.
“The flip side is, if the police give a lawful order, you’re not allowed to break it.”
It was most recently an issue in Ferguson, Missouri, this summer, when several journalists who were covering protests there were arrested by police.
The Constitution’s Free Press Clause protects the right of individuals to disseminate information without interference, constraint or prosecution by the government.
None of the journalists in Ferguson were ever charged by prosecutors or had to make an appearance in front of a judge, as far as Banville knows.
“It’s surprising the situation (in Polson) has reached the level it has,” Banville said. “It’s surprising, first, that they think the charges are worth pursuing and, second, that they feel they have that strong of a case.”
Banville said it appears either Isbell overreacted to the presence of a journalist who was reporting on a crash, or Lovato overreacted to commands given by the trooper.
“The devil is in the details,” Banville said, “and we don’t have those yet.”
Meloy said he would address any First Amendment ramifications to the case later.
“We’ll comment on that at some point in time, but we’re not prepared to do so now,” he said after Lovato’s initial appearance Wednesday.
He also declined to comment when a reporter asked if law enforcement had established a boundary around the two-vehicle wreck on Montana Highway 35 that made clear where unauthorized personnel were not allowed.
Meloy said he has filed a motion for discovery, asking the state to – among other things – provide any audio or video recordings available from the scene.
The Oct. 1 crash on the east shore of Flathead Lake involved a vehicle and tractor-trailer. One person was transported to a local hospital with non-life-threatening injuries.
Lovato came to Polson from Chelan, Washington, earlier this year, and was previously editor of the Lake Chelan Mirror.
In a June 26 column in the Leader in which he described his occupation as a lifestyle, not a job, Lovato wrote that while working at other newspapers he has “stepped over bodies on the street at the worst traffic accident in the history of the region,” was once detained by the U.S. Army for 13 hours after covering “a war game that went wrong,” and said he was once beaten up by “referees who screwed a bunch of high school basketball players and wrote the story with a TRS80 from my hospital bed, typing with one finger.”
The referees, according to Lovato’s column, were all officers with the California Highway Patrol who “were fired – and so was I because the editor’s daughter was dating one of them.”
Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or by email at [email protected].