The prosecutors said there was no "reasonable likelihood" that they could convict reporter Ray Stern.
By Sarah Fenske
The "disorderly conduct" citation against New Times reporter Ray Stern has been dropped at the request of prosecutors.
Last week, Mesa City Prosecutor John Pombier asked the court to dismiss the misdemeanor charge against Stern, writing that "there is no reasonable likelihood of a conviction." That's a major blow to the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, which had cited Stern on the same evening last October that it arrested New Times executive editor Michael Lacey and publisher Jim Larkin. Those two were hauled off to jail on charges of "violating grand jury secrecy"; Stern was arrested for allegedly raising his voice in the office of the sheriff's attorney earlier that same day after being told he couldn't photograph public records there.
West McDowell Justice of the Peace Rachel Correa granted the prosecutor's motion and dismissed the case without prejudice on Thursday.
As Lacey outlined in an August 28 cover story, the charge against Stern was screwy from the beginning. Sheriff Joe Arpaio's top brass, Lacey wrote, "drift[ed] between truculence, amnesia, and chivalry" as they tried to explain exactly why they arrested the reporter.
As Lacey reported, the alleged victim in the case, attorney Michele Iafrate, didn't initially call the Sheriff's Office to make a criminal complaint against Stern. "Iafrate had merely called the sheriff, her client, to update him on Stern's record inspection," Lacey reported. "She did not call seeking to file charges." Apparently, it was the sheriff's decision to turn a routine dispute into a criminal matter.
Stern (who, full disclosure, is a colleague and friend) said he's relieved that his legal ordeal is over: "It makes sense because it was it such a ridiculous charge to bring in the first place. It should give journalists and the public confidence that if they're getting screwed over in some way by bureaucrats, it's still not a crime to object."
Stern also praised the actions of Beverly Goodman, a former employee of Iafrate's law firm: "She came forward with no incentive to tell the truth about what happened. It made me feel great that someone there backed up my side of the story." (You can read all about Goodman's testimony here, but the gist is that no one at the Iafrate office was frightened by Stern's behavior -- and that Stern never really even raised his voice.)
The Mesa city prosecutor's office is actually the third agency to be assigned the case against Stern. Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas had to pass on the case, citing a conflict of interest. His office kicked it over to the city of Phoenix, which handled it for a while. But after Stern challenged sheriff's deputies over the public records law in that city, Phoenix also cited a conflict and sent the case to Mesa.
You can read all about the public records battle at Phoenix City Hall here.
New Times' attorney, Steve Suskin, fought the charge on Stern's behalf.
"This case is just another clear example of how Arpaio abuses the power of his office for petty politics, retaliation and vindictiveness," Suskin says. "I commend the prosecutor, John Pombier, for doing the right thing. We need more independent professionals like him in this county."
Pombier is out of the office today and could not be reached for comment.