Phoenix New Times Charges Dropped

Tod Hunter
PHOENIX — Phoenix New Times owners Jim Larkin and Michael Lacey were released Oct. 19, less than 24 hours after being arrested for publishing details of a grand jury subpoena that had demanded the Internet records of every person who had visited the New Times website since 2004.

This occurrence of events underscores the role the Internet plays in the invasion of privacy and free speech rights. Public backlash against the arrests came from across the political spectrum, with the conservative Goldwater Institute among the supporters of the New Times.

"The subpoena against the New Times is possibly the broadest invasion of privacy and free speech rights that I've ever seen," said Clint Bolick, director of the Goldwater Institute's Center for Constitutional Litigation. "The notion that thousands of readers of the New Times website would have their own Internet browsing investigated is absolutely appalling … This is a huge deprivation of personal privacy and involves tens of thousands of innocent people."

Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas dismissed all charges Oct. 19 after the arrests, just hours after Arizona's State Bar Association launched an internal investigation into Thomas and special prosecutor Dennis Wilenchik for their actions in the New Times case and an unrelated one.

Thomas claimed he had no prior knowledge of the arrests or the demands in the subpoena that had been issued from his office.

"It has become clear to me that this investigation has gone in a direction that I would not have authorized," Thomas said. "There have been serious missteps in this matter. I am announcing that Mr. Wilenchik will no longer serve as special prosecutor."

New Times has battled the County Attorney's office for years over charges that reporters and editors broke the law when they published the home address of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio online.

The case dates back to a New Times investigation of Arpaio's real estate holdings in 2004, which alleged the sheriff had abused a law that allows peace officers to keep their addresses from being made public. It said Arpaio used the law to hide nearly $1 million in cash real estate transactions while leaving his actual home address on public rolls.

Larkin and Lacey were arrested on charges that they broke the law by publishing details of the subpoena in the Oct. 19 issue. In the article, titled "Breathtaking Abuse of the Constitution" Lacey and Larkin acknowledged that they risked prosecution but said the issues were too important to keep from the public.

Also on Oct. 19 the Arizona Republic went to court requesting that all court filings in the case that led to the arrests of Larkin and Lacey be unsealed and that all future proceedings be opened to the public. In an editorial published Oct. 21, the Republic said attorneys for Phoenix Newspapers Inc., its publisher, and Channel 12 (KPNX-TV) filed a motion seeking access to transcripts and court filings.

In the editorial, the Republic said it "often is leery of New Times' style of free-for-all journalism. But, in this appalling overreach of government intrusion, both the New Times and the public were grievously wronged."