DALLAS PRESS VS. DALLAS POLICE: A CONFRONTATION LOOMS

Dallas News police reporter Don Fisher was relaxing after a pre-Christmas holiday dinner on December 23 at the home of his parents in Clarks-ville, Texas, when a Red River County investigator arrived at the Fisher home and presented a warrant for Don’s arrest.

Fisher was not quite so surprised as his parents were. Because both were in poor health, he’d refrained from telling them about the incident of nine days before: Fisher had been in the Oak Lawn home of a Dallas drug suspect, ostensibly interviewing the man for a story about the Dallas drug scene. Suddenly Dallas police burst through the door. Nine ounces of marijuana were found in a chair underneath Fisher’s coat. More marijuana was found elsewhere in the house. The pair was hauled into the Dallas city jail. Fisher had identified himself as a Dallas News reporter and told intelligence officers what he was doing, researching a story. He was released without being charged. The other man, the “interviewee,” was charged with possession often pounds of marijuana.

But a week later, on December 21, charges were filed against Fisher for a third degree felony, possession of more than four ounces of marijuana, which carries a two-to-ten year prison sentence, a fine of up to $5,000, or both. Police could have arrested Fisher that day or anytime during the next day, simply by walking down the hall to the police press room where Fisher was working. Instead, for some reason, police didn’t move to arrest Fisher until the 23rd, when he went to Clarks-ville for the dinner with his parents.

The case has another very intriguing aspect. Fisher claims he used a police press room telephone to set up his appointment with the drug suspect. He claims he also used that same telephone to inform his brother that he would be in Clarksville on December 23rd. Since neither his appointment with the drug suspect nor his intended visit to Clarksville was widely known, Fisher suspects that his telephone calls may have been monitored by the police. The police claim their information about the drugs came from an informant’s tip only hours before they executed the search warrant.

Whatever the explanation, the Fisher case is certainly more than just another small time Dallas pot bust. It is a case without precedent in Dallas legal history, with potentially far-reaching implications. The obvious question: To what extent is a reporter, while working in pursuit of a story, immune from prosecution in such a situation? The News, fully aware of the implications, is mustering its legal forces to defend Fisher.

On the other side, the case poses a sticky situation for Dallas police, who aren’t talking about it publicly. If they had not arrested Fisher, police might have been criticized for failing to equitably enforce the law. But by arresting Fisher, though the police are risking some bad publicity, they are managing to pass the very hot legal potato on to a Dallas County Grand Jury for hearing.

The grand jury may decide that Fisher was a reporter legitimately pursuing a story and see fit not to indict him, thereby absolving police of the difficult responsibility of deciding whether or not to pursue the case. If Fisher is indicted, however, the eyes of more than a few journalists will be watching the outcome.

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