Lawyer asks court to delay, dismiss Asheville journalists’ case as trial nears

The requests come alongside another attempt to get the city and county to respond to his subpoenas.

By: - June 2, 2023 5:59 am
A sign for Asheville's Aston Park

Asheville’s Aston Park, where Asheville Blade reporters Matilda Bliss and Veronica Coit were arrested for covering police sweeping a homeless encampment on Christmas night 2021.

An attorney for two journalists convicted of trespassing while reporting in a public park after-hours has asked a Superior Court judge to dismiss the case, or at least delay their looming appeal trial, based on the claim that the City of Asheville and Buncombe County District Attorney’s Office haven’t complied with his subpoenas or discovery requests.

Matilda Bliss and Veronica Coit, two reporters for the self-described “leftist” news outlet The Asheville Blade, were convicted of second-degree trespassing in a one-day bench trial in district court on April 19. They immediately told the court they’d appeal the misdemeanor. Their jury trial is currently set to begin June 12.

Bliss and Coit were covering police as they broke up a protest and homeless encampment on Christmas night 2021. They were the first people arrested that evening, which their attorney Ben Scales alleged during their bench trial was because of their critical coverage of the city and its police.

Their case — and the cases of 16 activists charged with felony littering for the items they left in the park — have become a flashpoint in the city’s treatment of its homeless residents and how its responds to scrutiny, with advocates claiming its actions undermine Asheville’s progressive reputation.

Scales has requested a long list of items from the Asheville Police Department to bolster his arguments at trial. City officials resisted the subpoena, claiming it “deviates from acceptable legal standards” and threatening to seek sanctions if Scales tried to push the court to get them to produce the records.

Scales submitted another motion for discovery on May 30, providing a glimpse into how officials responded to his last attempt. After asking the court for help getting officials to turn over the documents he requested, Scales received body cam footage from the officers at Aston Park that night — during which one officer asks if they should arrest Bliss and Coit first, “since they’re videotaping” — along with a packet of police reports.

What little has been turned over underscores the need for more records, Scales wrote in the filing. An officer’s search warrant claims Bliss has ties to “anarchist extremist groups” like Asheville Social Justice Schedules — a group whose Facebook page advocates defunding the police and whose profile picture is of a heart.

“It is clear from the actions of the police and by extension, the District Attorney, that they were investigating Ms. Bliss personally, and that they considered her not as a reporter or journalist, but rather as an accomplice of others arrested because of events culminating on Christmas night in Aston Park,” Scales wrote.

The City of Asheville objected in writing to Scales’ discovery motion the same day he filed it. John B. Maddux, the deputy city attorney, said the city would cooperate with the Buncombe County District Attorney’s Office to ensure it complies with its legal obligations, but called Scales’ subpoenas “patently improper” and asked that they be withdrawn. He said the subpoenas placed an “undue burden or expense” on the city and its staff, and again threatened to ask the court to issue sanctions against Scales if he kept pushing the issue, intending to “present evidence that you issued these subpoenas with full knowledge that they are not proper, but did so anyway.”

Dismiss, or at least delay

The discovery motion wasn’t the only thing Scales filed Tuesday. He also asked the court to dismiss the case, or at least delay it, since “neither the State nor the City has complied with Defendants’ discovery requests or subpoenas.” Even aside from the records he’d requested, Scales said the delay in responding to his court motions alone showed the need to delay the impending trial.

“It is anticipated that Defendants will need more time to respond to whatever the State intends to file than is currently available if the trial date of June 12 is not continued,” Scales wrote.

Bliss and Coit are also waiting on the court to rule on Scales’ two discovery motions. If the court rules in their favor, Scales would need time to review whatever city and county officials turn over, he wrote.

“As of the date of this motion, only limited discovery has been provided by the State to Defendants, and the discovery that has been provided has exposed the need for further discovery by referring to and identifying documents and sources of information that should be disclosed to Defendants in sufficient time for them to develop their cases for trial,” he wrote.

Scales’ motion to dismiss the case includes a lengthy defense of journalism and a castigation of the city’s actions. He accused the Asheville Police Department of using the city’s park curfew ordinance to block journalists from covering their planned sweep of Aston Park.

“The police took full advantage of the ordinance,” Scales wrote. “They scheduled their clearing of the Aston Park encampment, which they knew to be controversial and of great public interest, for 10pm on Christmas night specifically to weaponize the curfew against reporters who had a history of openly and directly criticizing the police.”

Scales noted the important role the press plays in policymaking as well as its power in shaping politics and holding government accountable.

“Should the police be allowed to weaponize a law such as the park curfew in this case to arrest journalists for doing their job, a job essential to the proper workings of a democratic society and government?” he asked.

Scales included a sworn declaration from Gregg P. Leslie, a professor and executive director of the First Amendment Clinic at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. Leslie urged the court to recognize Bliss and Coit’s right to gather the news, even if “the journalists involved come to the story with a particular political viewpoint.”

Leslie noted that, historically, journalists were opinionated and even biased in their reporting. Traditional journalists publicly embraced the guise of “objectivity” for most of the 20th century, but there have always been conversations about their biases and how they influence their journalism.

“The public will always look for and judge biases in journalism, as they should,” Leslie said. “But that doesn’t limit who has the legal rights of a journalist.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Kelan Lyons
Kelan Lyons

Investigative Reporter Kelan Lyons writes about criminal and civil justice, including high-profile litigation, prison and jail conditions, housing, and the challenges people face when they leave prison.