The video is petrifying. It shows a squadron of law enforcement officers descending on some poor schlub who is sitting peacefully outside his trailer in rural Paso Robles, terrorizing him, cuffing him, then ransacking his home without a warrant and dreaming up excuses later for their spine-chilling behavior.
Jeezus, you think, is this America? Could this happen to me?
The first answer is, yes, this is America still, although it has clearly changed.
Could it happen to you? Maybe. Some of what is depicted on the video — the illegal search — could happen to you under the wrong circumstances. But the rest of it — not likely.
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The 20-minute video in question has gone viral, as they say. It has stormed the Internet and has received hundreds of thousands of views.
But there is more to the story than videographer Dan Blackburn has presented for his Internet admirers. Isn’t there always?
To me, this story is important for two reasons:
Through Blackburn’s reporting on his Central Coast News Agency website, it raises the serious question of whether our Fourth Amendment rights continue to fade away, a process that began in earnest after the attacks of Sept, 11, 2001; and
It spotlights the nature of reporting and reporting standards, by throwing another politically edited video onto the Internet and depicting it as truth.
We still haven’t cleaned off the fecal matter from the last episode of this so-called “journalism,” the selectively edited video about former U.S. agricultural manager Shirley Sherrod by an un-American character named Andrew Breitbart that made Sherrod appear to say the opposite of what she actually said — and appear racist.
Is Blackburn’s tape in the same category? Where do journalists draw the line and remain responsible?
Blackburn said he had been looking for a vehicle with which to launch his Central Coast News Agency. When he heard about Matt Hart’s run-in with San Luis Obispo County sheriff’s deputies, he thought he might have a story.
When he got his hands on the videos from the deputies’ vehicles, Blackburn said, he knew he had one.
The video shows deputies heading to Hart’s home in rural Paso Robles the afternoon of April 22, 2008, after neighbors called in reports of shots fired, then later of a man holding a gun sitting at a table in his yard.
Although he uses the deputies’ own tapes to show the confrontation with Hart, Blackburn frames the entire episode to instead show the man’s perspective by editing in commentary and having Hart re-enact some of what happened.
Here’s Hart’s point of view, culled from his 2009 claim against the county, which was denied and is now dead:
“Sitting outside your own house in the country and installing scopes on your own .22 rifle is not a crime. Having your home raided by law enforcement officers at gunpoint and threatening to kill you and breaking into one’s private safes and stealing the contents is a crime.”
Playing that same tune, Blackburn introduces his video with restful music played behind shots of tranquil suburban houses and overlaid with the reporter’s folksy commentary. “Home, sweet home,” he drawls, “Sanctuary, haven, shelter. But how safe are you, really, in your own home?”
As the deputies drive up to the site, Blackburn introduces us to Hart as just some guy who was peacefully shooting targets on a remote corner of his property, as he had done for years. The implication is that there was something wrong with neighbors kvetching to the sheriff about it.
Viewed that way, the deputies’ behavior is hair-raising. They are heavily armed and pointing their guns at Hart.
However, here are the boots into which Blackburn does not place himself or his viewers: Those of the responding deputies.
As deputies see it, they have been sent to a remote corner of the county because some guy has been shooting and neighbors are freaked. They arrive, and there he (Hart) is, sitting at a table with a gun in his hand.
The deputies ordered Hart to put down the weapon and walk toward them. Hart was slow to do so — because, he said, one ear was plugged and he didn’t hear them. But he eventually complied.
Then he did something that could have left him in the morgue.
He reached in his pocket for a cell phone.
As even Blackburn points out, it’s probably not a good idea to reach for anything when you have what appears to be a small army pointing high-powered weapons at you.
“You don’t know what the guy’s going for,” says Rob Bryn, crime prevention specialist for the Sheriff’s Department. “Is he mentally unstable? Is he suicidal? There’s no way for us to look into his psyche.”
The deputies went ballistic over this, pun intended, yelling at Hart and looking once more, in Blackburn’s video, like agents of a police state.
But you know what? I don’t think they overreacted, and I doubt the average citizen would.
They managed to cuff Hart without shooting him, and all seemed calm.
This, however, is where the Sheriff’s Department went off the tracks, searching his house without a warrant in clear violation of the Fourth Amendment and backing up the main point in Blackburn’s tape.
Let’s take a look
After they cuffed Hart, one of the deputies said maybe they should search the house.
This is where the phrase “search warrant” should have popped into each of their heads. But it didn’t, not until later.
Even though Hart explicitly denied them permission to enter, they seized his keys and went in and searched the place. They did so with remarkable casualness.
They later claimed they had to go in because of “exigent circumstances,” and suggested there may have been a body or a second shooter inside.
But “exigent” implies urgency and desperation, and these guys displayed neither. They all but ambled over to the house. If a person had been dying in there, he would have kicked the bucket.
Deputies found, among other things, a locked gun safe, which they opened.
At this point, Blackburn’s video records deputies talking about how to justify their entry to the house.
Blackburn has them dead to rights here, skewering them with their own words. One deputy says he isn’t sure they have probable cause, and others chip in about possible dead bodies, prescription drugs, Hart‘s behavior, and other elements as reasons to break the law.
One deputy says that when he writes in his report about their need to go into the house he will use “flowery” language to justify it.
The salient fact about all these discussions is that they took place after the fact.
The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that people must be safe in their homes against unreasonable search and seizure.
It is what protects us against the knock in the night that characterized Nazi Germany, or any era and place where the state wants to rid itself of people it considers objectionable.
It is one of the things that make the United States of America different from all the rest. Yet since the events of Sept. 11, 2001, it has taken a beating. It is under attack all over, most notably right now in Arizona.
As disreputable and dangerous as he may have seemed to sheriff’s deputies that April day two years ago, the Fourth Amendment protects Matt Hart.
The cops knew they blew it on the unreasonable search; that’s why they conspired to justify their illegal entry after they had illegally entered.
In an interview last month with the Sheriff’s Department, during which we watched one officer’s video together, Chief Deputy Rob Reid tacitly acknowledged as much when he told me that, since the Hart incident, deputies have undergone added training about what constitutes probable cause and exigent circumstances.
So, Blackburn has accomplished something already.
A different question
Now, was the video generally credible and journalistically responsible?
That’s a different question, and before I answer it I want to introduce something that Blackburn left out.
Hart, Blackburn’s “regular guy,” had run-ins with sheriff’s deputies before.
A minor traffic stop in 2002 escalated into a physical confrontation that involved the law, Hart and his adult son.
This is important information for two reasons.
First, it raises the question of whether the responding deputies knew about this history. Bryn said he doesn’t know. But it clearly could have colored their response.
It also explains Hart’s state of mind when deputies arrived at his gate in 2008. He was afraid of getting another beatdown. That’s why he reached for his cell phone — to call the FBI, according to his claim.
Now, calling the FBI when the sheriff has guns pointed at you may not seem rational to the average Joe. But I invite those who feel that way to read Hart’s 15-page, single-spaced, $90 million complaint against the county on file at the Clerk-Recorder’s Office.
His claim is alternately penetrating, hilarious, incoherent, bizarre and, heck, let me just thumb trough my thesaurus here never mind.
The point is it tells you who Matt Hart is and who he isn’t. He’s not Joe Suburbanite, as Blackburn’s video initially presents him.
Which brings us back to the question of journalistic responsibility.
In my view, Blackburn should not have presented Matt Hart as an Everyman. He clearly is not.
However, there is a deep difference between what Blackburn did and what Andrew Breitbart did.
Breitbart deliberately turned the truth on its head.
Blackburn was engaging in advocacy journalism, which takes a point of view but does not jettison the truth. It is a long and noble tradition in this country.
It helps that Blackburn is an actual journalist and understands the rules and obligations of the profession. He is 67 and has kicked around for many a year, working for the Orange County Register and other mainstream newspapers. Locals know him from his days at New Times.
He attributes the information he uses in his piece; that is a key difference between reputable journalists and those who cannot be trusted. Those who use anonymous sources are frequently manipulated by those sources.
I may criticize him for creating a false impression about Matt Hart.
But in the final analysis, Blackburn is doing things that he believes the mainstream media won’t do, in some cases because they’re fearful, but mostly because they don’t have enough money to assign reporters to arcane stories like attacks on the Constitution.
My colleagues may disagree, but to me Blackburn is using journalism to protect a basic American right, however imperfectly he does so. There’s nothing new about that; it’s patriotic, it’s honorable, and it’s a good thing.