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Newton sheriff: Concern about staff and building safety led to photographer's arrest
Newton County Sheriffs Office-SIGN-WEB
The entrance to the Newton County Sheriff's Office

COVINGTON, Ga. — Sheriff Ezell Brown says he made a "conscious decision for the safety and security of staff members and the correctional center" to order the arrest of a man shooting video of vehicles in the parking lot of the county Law Enforcement Center in late September.

In an incident report, Brown also stated Gainesville resident Joshua Randolph pushed a video camera toward him and put his hand in his pocket before Brown struck a tripod the man was holding causing Randolph to drop objects in his hand — apparently a camera and phones — to the ground. Randolph, who had one cell phone, was reaching for another cell phone in his pocket, Brown said.

Randolph, who operates a YouTube channel under the name Georgia Guardian, recently filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court alleging Brown and Deputy Timothy Smith "smashed" the man's film equipment while filming a news segment for his social media pages. Smith also used excessive force against him after handcuffing and arresting him, Randolph alleged in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges his First, Fourth, and 14th Amendment rights were violated and the law enforcement officers broke Georgia law when they seized his camera equipment and brought criminal charges against him for "filming in public places" Sept. 28 near the Newton County Law Enforcement Center and Detention Center on Alcovy Road.

Brown reported he first saw Randolph wearing a black cap, dark windbreaker and dark, full face covering. He was holding a camera and shooting video of different banners at the entrance to the Newton County Sheriff's Office, the sheriff reported.

The sheriff first thought it was the sheriff's office's webmaster or a recruit — before seeing the same person "going from vehicle to vehicle in the parking lot of the Law Enforcement Center."

The man "continued to do likewise with other vehicles" which were "mainly the sheriff's office staffs' personal vehicles," Brown said.

"At this point, it became very apparent after observing a black ball cap and to see the subject leaning forward recording the badge number in front of Lt. Courtney Morrison's county-issued vehicle," Brown said. "The subject then stood and continued to pan the inside of the vehicle, and then other unmarked county-issued vehicles in the same area."

He said Randolph then panned the camera to "what appeared to be the secure area of the Law Enforcement Center."

Brown said in the report he asked Randolph what he was doing and he replied he was shooting video but declined to say why he was shooting it. 

He reported he told Randolph to leave the property and stop recording, and "the subject then goes to take his right hand and reach into his pocket, while pushing the camera closer into my space."

Brown said he then "struck the subject's tripod, forcing the subject's left hand over his right hand, forcing all of the objects out of his hands onto the ground. It was then revealed the object he retrieved out of his pocket was another cell phone." 

The sheriff said he asked Randolph for his ID and he refused and said he did not have to show an ID. At that point Brown told him to leave the property and Randolph said he would not leave until Brown returned his cell phones.

Smith then arrived on the scene and Brown "instructed Deputy Smith to escort the subject back across the guard line until we could figure out what was going on."

"Deputy Smith escorted, with some resistance, the subject back across the guard line and (Brown) explained to the subject that once we figured out what was going on he could possibly get his cell phones back," the sheriff's report stated.

In a separate report, Smith said Randolph "became confrontational and argumentative to the sheriff and myself while attempting to film and take more pictures" after they had told him "five or more times to stop and leave the property."

"The subject blatantly disregarded all commands given," Smith said in his report. "The subject stated that he was a journalist, a news reporter covering a story but refused to give any details on the story."

Smith stated he "frisked the subject for weapons on his persons to ensure my safety" and he led Randolph off the property as he "continued to be argumentative and combative, refusing to leave."

Brown reported he told Smith to arrest Randolph and he then told Brown to "get ready for your lawsuit," the sheriff reported.

Smith stated he arrested Randolph and took him to the Detention Center, where he booked him on charges of Loitering or Prowling, as well as Obstruction of an Officer "when the subject did pull away from me during detention and arrest."

"The subject phones were confiscated and placed into evidence pending investigation," he reported.

Randolph disputes the details of a number of incidents Brown and Smith wrote about in their reports. He said the video he shot details his confrontation with Brown and Smith before he dropped the camera.

The video can be seen here:

The Newton County District Attorney's office later moved to dismiss warrants on the charges against Randolph because "there is insufficient evidence to prove the guilt" of Randolph "beyond a reasonable doubt” despite his Sept. 28 arrest.

Randolph said he contacted District Attorney Randy McGinley about possible investigation of the incident to see if charges against the sheriff and others were warranted.

McGinley said he asked Randolph for all full and unedited videos he may have and said he told Randolph he was "always willing to have my office look into anything and investigate the matter ourselves or to forward it to another agency."

"My office gets many calls or contacts about incidents that happen that may or may not be criminal," McGinley said. "Most often, we direct people to the agency that has jurisdiction over any potential crime so that agency can investigate the matter first. There are other times when it is appropriate for our office to handle it or ask another outside agency to look into it. 

"We are not a primary investigative body, but we can and do lead investigations when appropriate," McGinley said. 

"Anything that my office looks into starts by gathering any and all relevant information, reviewing that, and then determining where to go from there," he said. "As always, the law and the facts are the only thing that guide our process and decisions."

Randolph said in his lawsuit that he is an "independent journalist" who "films and produces independent news videos focusing on issues of government accountability throughout Georgia."

On videos posted on his Georgia Guardian YouTube page, Randolph typically does a "First Amendment audit" at the headquarters of a Georgia police department or sheriff's office and shoots video of the vehicles and equipment on-site.

His videos also have documented his stops at police or sheriff's departments in Douglas, Oconee, Greene, Barrow and Lincoln counties, and the cities of Winder, Cumming, Eatonton and Braselton, among others.

Officers or the police chief or sheriff also often confront him and Randolph said he always tells whoever confronts him he is gathering content for a story. He also does not show ID — maintaining that Georgia law only requires showing ID to an officer in the event of a traffic stop, he said.

According to information from the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, state law does not require ID be shown to a law enforcement officer unless the request is made of someone operating a vehicle or the officer has probable cause to believe the person has violated the law,