Turn on any television news program and you are likely to find a starlet or politician being surrounded by a crowd of reporters. Keep watching and you will see a disturbing new trend. Regular people beginning to be hounded by the ambush journalists with microphones shoved in their faces and video cameras broadcasting their every move.
People in the public eye know what to expect from the media and often have people to handle them. Unfortunately, the average Joe or Jane Public doesn’t know their legal rights. Even one as simple as knowing how to apply the trespass laws can create a buffer zone between you and the stalking reporters that can provide a momentary peaceful calm in whatever media storm you are weathering.
The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law 2011 define trespass as “a person commits a trespass by entering property that is in the possession of another, without authorization or consent.” Each state has its own set of trespass laws, and the federal government has trespass laws for federal lands within states that trump state laws as well as the recently passed Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011 that extends trespass to locations that need to be temporarily restricted due to people the Secret Service are protection are or will be or a special event of national significance being held.
In New York State, if you have a traditional unfenced front yard, a reporter can walk right up to your front door and knock on it like any of your friendly neighbors. However, once you tell that pesky reporter that they are unwelcome and to leave your property, they must do so.
Be aware, they can record your conversation overtly or secretly. NYS Penal Law 250.00 regarding eavesdropping states that as long as one of the parties in the conversation consents to being recorded, it is legal.
Either way, if they retreat and setup their video cameras on the public sidewalk or street in front of your home, there is nothing you can do about it except pull your drape shut. As the American Civil Liberties Union points out, “when in public spaces where you are lawfully present you have the right to photograph anything that is in plain view.”
If the reporters remain in your front yard, they committed trespass, a violation in New York. Violations in New York cannot be made by a police officer not committed in his presence, but you can make a civilian arrest under the power granted by NYS Criminal Procedure Law 140.30 if you choose to do so.
Making the civilian arrest might not be a wise move, though. It opens you up to a possible civil lawsuit if the media outlet wants to sue. Additionally, you have take off from work to be in criminal court for all of the proceedings where the media has easy access to you in a public place they are allowed except in a few exceptions.
When a photographer hops your fence, opens the back gate or otherwise enters your enclosed property with is obvious to the average person meant to keep people out. If the property is fenced in and there is a ‘No Trespassing’ sign posted,” explains Suffolk County Police Officer John J. Chiquitucto, “the reporter is being advised that they are not allowed on the property and thereby are not allowed to be there.” They have committed the crime criminal trespass 3º, a class B misdemeanor.
If they unscrupulously enter your home, they have raised the bar to criminal trespass 2º, a class A misdemeanor. If while inside your home, they steal your cellphone or diary, they are now a harden felon by committing burglary 2º, a class C felony. Police officers can arrest offenders for misdemeanors and felonies in New York whether committed in their presence or not.
When you do leave your home and the reporters follow you paparazzi-style to your favorite eatery, here’s a tip for you. Slip the maître d’ a little extra to keep them out of their fine establishment.
“If a person is being followed into a location such as a restaurant,” informs Chiquitucto, “the owner of such an establishment can be used as a complainant to advise the reporters to leave or be prosecuted under the trespass law.”
While none of this knowledge will completely shield you from the unwanted press attention, it will help against those that sneaky portion of the media that care more for the story than moral lines they cross to obtain it.