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Citizen Journalists Seek Answers From Richmond Police

Person in front of RPD HQ
Lynn Murphy in front of the Richmond Police Department, where she documented police responses to the protests this summer. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

*Daniel Moritz-Rabson reported this story

Two weeks after he allegedly committed a misdemeanor during a September protest, Richmond police arrested activist and independent journalist Kristopher Goad. 

Police informed Goad, known by the name “Goad Gatsby,” that RPD had issued him a warrant for obstructing the free passage of others. Officers transported him to the coronavirus-stricken Richmond jail and took his phone, later claiming it was being held under a sealed warrant. More than a month later, the police haven’t returned it.

Goad is one of three activists and independent journalists who told VPM they have been targeted by police for documenting officers’ activity at recent demonstrations.

Night after night this summer, Goad, Lynn Murphy and Alex Oxford documented the historic protests, sweeping arrests and clashes between police and protesters in Richmond. After levying pointed criticism against the RPD, all three were arrested for misdemeanor charges and told their phones are being held under sealed warrants. The activists described the arrests as retaliatory and believe the officers targeted them because of their reach on social media.

“I don't know how else to say it. It’s retaliation. The biggest critics of the police aren’t major news stations. It’s people with a fair amount of media influence on Twitter,” Goad said. “The police, who are the ones in charge of watching over these protests, have decided that they are going to pursue charges to nonviolent people who have been extremely critical of the police, and then they can find laws that they can hold people for.”

Police arrested Murphy less than a week before Goad, charging her with the obstruction of free passage during a September 14 march, an allegation she denies. The Richmond police “violently grabbed me on a protest line, while I was reporting,” Murphy said. She says she was jailed for 12 hours.

The Richmond Police Department, which is facing lawsuits for allegedly violating protesters’ rights this summer, confirmed that all three had their phones seized after their arrests as part of ongoing investigations, but did not answer questions about the investigations or standard policy.

VPM also contacted Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin to inquire about sealed warrants for activists who act as independent journalists. McEachin said she was, “not aware of any journalists whose phones are the subject of a search warrant.” 

The activists said police would not provide warrant numbers or explanations for seizing their phones. Murphy and Oxford said Detective Brendan Leavy asked them for passcodes to their phones. Leavy did not respond when contacted by VPM.

"It can’t just be in an unlawful assembly and taking your phone. It would have to be something more like inciting a riot, or something else that they’re claiming the phone has to do with in order to have their phone lawfully taken.”

- Ashley Shapiro, public defender

“I’m very surprised that protesters’ phones have been seized and not returned,” Richmond Public Defender Tracy Paner said. “These are not drug cartel masterminds with accounting numbers that will give way to a huge criminal enterprise. These are people marching in the street because Black lives matter.”

Legally, the activists can file in circuit court to unseal the warrants. But Murphy and Oxford said their efforts to even locate the warrants have failed. Both said they went to the courthouse clerk’s office, where they were told no warrant could be found and directed back to police. 

Although Virginia law allows any person to file a motion claiming their property was unlawfully taken from them, Murphy said that she was told she couldn’t file a motion because the clerk couldn’t find a warrant. Criminal defense attorney Betty Layne DesPortes says Murphy doesn’t need one.

“Filing a motion to return property does not depend on the existence of a search warrant,” DesPortes said. “From the clerk’s response, it sounds more like there is no warrant.”

While Goad, Murphy and Oxford dug for information about the warrants, others who attended protests said the police held property taken during demonstrations, without claiming the items are being kept for an investigation. 

On consecutive nights, officers took two phones -- one each night -- from a medic who asked not to be identified for this story. Police returned the phones about two months after the arrests that led to the phones being seized, and a medic bag was returned last week, the medic said. Another protester said police took a range of items he was carrying the night he was arrested, including his keys, wallet and Nikon camera. Nearly three months later, he has given up hope of getting the items returned. 

“That’s just totally illegal, unless they’re alleging the property itself is illegal, for example drugs,” Ashley Shapiro, senior assistant public defender for the Richmond Public Defender’s Office and legislative director of advocacy group Justice Forward, said. “They’re not allowed to just take your phone. That is illegal. There has to be probable cause to seize it. There has to be probable cause to search it. It can’t just be you’re at a protest and we’re taking your phone. And it can’t just be in an unlawful assembly and taking your phone. It would have to be something more like inciting a riot, or something else that they’re claiming the phone has to do with in order to have their phone lawfully taken.”

Documenting Police Conduct is Legal

The police conduct also raises concerns about the suppression of Constitutional rights.

David Snyder, executive director of free-speech advocacy group the First Amendment Coalition, told VPM that documenting police is legal.

“The general rule is if it’s happening in a public space, and you want to document it with your camera, your phone, you have the full right to do so, and an arrest or harassing activity that is aimed at preventing people from doing that would run counter to the First Amendment,” Snyder said. “Police activity like this can have a real detrimental chilling effect on legitimate and lawful protest activity.”

In September, press freedom organizations sent a letter expressing concern over the treatment of reporters from traditional media outlets to Mayor Levar Stoney and Police Chief Gerald Smith. The letter noted that, among other instances in which police had infringed upon press freedom, Richmond officers pepper sprayed a VPM reporter and an editor of The Commonwealth Times, though both had clearly identified themselves as journalists. 

While the First Amendment protects all members of the public, the risk of reporting can be amplified for those who straddle the line between activist and journalist, Snyder said. Police may not afford these individuals certain protections given to reporters working for a major outlet, and once arrested or charged, independent reporters don’t have the legal assistance provided by news outlets. 

The activists say they’ve also faced other forms of intimidation. Oxford, who was charged with obstruction/resistance without force after trying to get police to release a protester being arrested on  September 1, organized the women’s march in Richmond on October 17. Lt. Tommy Lloyd, who multiple activists said regularly shows up to protests and watches demonstrations, RSVP’d to the event, writing he was “Looking forward to it!” When contacted for this article, Lloyd referred VPM to the Media Relations Unit, which did not respond to this inquiry.

Jimmie Lee Jarvis, another activist who documents police conduct at protests, is a plaintiff in one of the lawsuits filed against the Richmond police for their conduct at the summer’s protests. At demonstrations, Jarvis said officers often make sure to acknowledge his presence. When he walks around town, they shout at him.

“This is an experience I’ve had nearly every single day, whether or not there’s a protest going on I’ll have a Richmond police officer run into me on the street or drive past me and lean out the window to yell my name. The other day was my birthday, and I had three RPD vehicles pull up to me, all so they could lean out and each say something about my birthday,” Jarvis said. “They know better than to be outright threatening.”

More than a month after his phone was taken, police haven’t returned Goad’s device. Two months after police arrested her and took her phone, Oxford received a letter, addressed to the wrong zip code, saying that her phone could be picked up. Murphy said she called police after learning Oxford had received a letter, and was told her phone could be picked up. Neither activist knows if police searched through their phones.

“I hate this whole system so much,” Oxford said.

*Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article listed the charge against Oxford as "obstructing with force," per an official Richmond Police Department statement on Nov. 11, 2020. A review of court records shows the actual charge was "obstruction/resistance without force." We have updated the article and asked the police about the discrepancy.

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