Reporter files $10 million complaint in tape-seizure incident

Thursday, June 10, 1999

A broadcast reporter who claims deputies with the Riverside County, Calif., Sheriff's Department wrestled a videotape from him that showed officers fatally shooting a suspect has filed a $10 million complaint against the department.

Eden Dankowski of Professional News Coverage, an independent news organization that provides news footage to television stations, says the deputies violated his First Amendment press rights by forcing him to turn over his tape of the May 5 shooting.

Dankowski filed his complaint with the Riverside County Board of Supervisors on June 4.

“This has nothing to do with money actually,” Dankowski said. “It has everything to do with penalizing the department so they remember to never, ever mess with the media again.”

Sheriff's Department officials referred phone calls to the Board of Supervisors.

Officials with the board, which handles such complaints, said they couldn't comment. A spokeswoman for the board clerk's office confirmed that the supervisors had received the complaint on June 4 but hadn't assigned it to an investigator yet.

Such investigations, spokeswoman Kim Rector said, normally take about 30 days.

The shooting occurred after a high-speed chase through four counties. The suspect took off after a drug sale near Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, Calif., the chase weaving through San Diego, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties and ending in Riverside County near the home of the suspect's friend.

Following a 2½-hour standoff, the suspect came out of the house and was shot repeatedly.

At the time, the incident raised some speculation that law enforcement officials had overreacted and shot the suspect to death unnecessarily.

According to the complaint, the sheriff's deputies learned while on the scene that Dankowski's footage showed the shooting in considerable detail. Dankowski said he offered to make them a copy of the tape.

He was detained and then ordered to hand over the original tape. Dankowski said that after he refused, deputies twisted his arm behind his back and took the tape, telling him they needed it for their investigation.

“The real truth is, they didn't want people to see it on TV,” Dankowski said. “They were hiding something.”

Clint Fedderson, Dankowski's attorney, said the deputies not only violated First Amendment press rights but the public's rights.

“The public should be concerned too, because if the sheriff had not interfered, that tape would have been shared with the public,” Fedderson said. “The public would have had an opportunity to view tape in an earlier time when it was still news. The police have interfered with the public's right to know about things like this.”

Fedderson noted that county officials have 45 days in which to respond to the complaint. After that deadline, Dankowski may opt to file a lawsuit.

Fedderson said the deputies have since returned the tape, but he noted that Dankowski had lost an opportunity to sell the footage when the incident was still newsworthy.

Even so, Dankowski says, his complaint isn't about money or vindication.

“We wouldn't do it for the abuse of the department,” Dankowski said. “We do it because people need to know what's going on. If that means turning the cameras on the sheriffs and the deputies, then so be it.”