A Times photographer was charged Friday with obstruction after he arrived at a crime scene off Lyman Street in Hall County to take photos.
Nat Gurley, 53, of Gainesville arrived just after noon at a scene where a body had been found. Gurley parked his vehicle in a vacant lot at the end of the street, well away from where crime scene tape marked the location of the body.
The call came in at noon and officers arrived at 12:05 p.m., according to Sgt. Stephen Wilbanks, spokesman for the Hall County Sheriff’s Office.
The sheriff’s office said foul play is not suspected in the case to which Gurley responded, the death of a 47-year-old man whom officers believe was homeless. It appears the man fell into a drainage ditch in the 1400 block of Lyman Street off Pearl Nix Parkway, hit his head and bled to death. His name has not been released, pending notification of family.
Gurley was immediately asked by Hall County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Robert Talley to come back later, according to a video Gurley recorded of the incident. Gurley asked whether the incident was a homicide or natural death, and the deputy said he did not know, but he had been told to ask Gurley to leave.
Gurley told the deputy he was within his rights to be in a public place and was not ready to leave yet when watch commander Lt. Brad Rounds approached and told Gurley to “hit the road.”
Rounds continued to tell Gurley he had to leave, noting that he was in a crime scene, to which Gurley replied that the crime scene tape was many feet away from where he was. Officers began asking Gurley to move farther away from the scene so they could extend the crime scene and put up tape in the area where they were arguing.
Capt. Chris Matthews then told Gurley that a request for him to move down the road was not unreasonable. When Gurley continued to question why he had to move, Matthews said he could either move or go to jail.
Gurley then said, “take me to jail.”
He was arrested at 12:43 p.m., Wilbanks said.
“The arrest of Mr. Gurley was unfortunate, but necessary,” Sheriff Gerald Couch said in a statement. “While we strive to have good working relationships with media representatives, Hall County Sheriff’s Office policy clearly states that media personnel will be granted access to scenes ‘... to the degree that it does not interfere with the law enforcement mission. ...’”
Law enforcement can limit access to a site to protect areas where evidence is preserved or being gathered, but outside of those limited zones, journalists have a right to work, according to Georgia Press Association attorney David Hudson.
“Law enforcement officials who wrongfully interfere with those rights are subject to suit for violation of a journalist’s civil rights,” he said.
Times Publisher Dennis Stockton said though the company expects its employees to cooperate with law enforcement and follow the law, Gurley’s vehicle was parked well away from the area where the body was found and the area was not marked with crime scene tape.
“In fact, he was arrested so quickly he never even knew where the body was located,” Stockton said. “He wasn’t there long enough to obstruct anyone from doing anything.”
Stockton added that it appeared the officers didn’t have the area marked off like they wanted, even though a fire truck had already responded to the scene and left. He said “none of it was handled very well.”
Couch said officers were requesting Gurley leave an area that was being established as the outer perimeter of a crime scene. He added that investigators had not arrived yet and the nature of the death had not yet been determined.
“With that being the case, it was imperative that the integrity of the immediate area be protected as much as possible,” Couch said. “Mr. Gurley was afforded ample opportunity to depart the scene and park on an adjacent street. He flatly refused that request and demanded to be arrested. After Mr. Gurley’s arrest, that outer perimeter was successfully cordoned off, and his vehicle was towed from the scene so that the investigation could continue.”
Stockton called the arrest “unnecessary, unprofessional and most importantly unconstitutional.”
“In this instance it seems clear that our photographer was targeted by overzealous officers when he was in no way interfering with any investigation,” he said. “... What should have been quickly and easily resolved through clear communication and common courtesy instead escalated to an arrest that we think was unnecessary.
“We think the video of the incident makes it clear that intimidation was the intent of the officers,” he continued. “We will not let our employees be intimidated by law enforcement officers who simply do not want the press to do its job. The interest of the public cannot be served by a fearful press.”
Hall County Solicitor General Stephanie Woodard said she had not yet made a decision on whether to prosecute the case and did not have all the information.
“What this is a situation of is, I think, two forces for good that occasionally come into conflict,” Woodard said. “There’s the public safety issue of protecting a crime scene, especially where there’s an investigation of a death case, and then the press and their desire and mission to inform the public. And sometimes in the immediacy of a situation, forces of good can come into conflict.”
Gurley was booked into the Hall County Jail and later released on $2,700 bail.