Ariz. 'guerilla journalist' jailed for police filming, accessing restricted areas

The man has racked up six filming-related court cases since he began showing up at police scenes in 2021, live-streaming officers as they conducted investigations

By Scott Shumaker
East Valley Tribune 

MESA, Ariz. — A Mesa judge has sentenced self-described "guerilla journalist" Christopher Ruff to at least five days in jail in connection his videotaping of four police incidents and walking into a restricted area in Mesa's City Plaza Building after being told not to.

The judge two weeks ago also threatened to lock him up for up to six months if he doesn't cease filming police in Mesa while on probation for three years.

A Mesa judge has sentenced Christopher Ruff to at least five days in jail in connection with his videotaping of four police incidents.
A Mesa judge has sentenced Christopher Ruff to at least five days in jail in connection with his videotaping of four police incidents. (Photo/Facebook via Gilbert Sun News)

In early 2021, the Mesa native started showing up at police scenes with a camera where officers were working. He recorded and live-streamed the activity with the avowed purpose of catching violations of his First Amendment rights and holding police accountable for following rules and procedures.

He has over 100,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel, and creators with this level of viewership make roughly $500 to $1,000 per video, based on a survey of content creators last year by Business Insider.

But Ruff said, "This ain't about money or clicks and views as believed by many. There is real corruption happening here, and it goes much higher than just the police department."

Ruff has frequently filmed in Mesa, but he travels to other Valley jurisdictions as well and is well-known to Gilbert police for his filming here.

He has racked up six filming-related court cases in Mesa, two of which were dismissed. The recent sentencing was for the other four cases.

Filming ban for three years

Ruff's sentence includes 180 days of suspended jail time.

If the sentence sticks, this time will hang over Ruff's head during his three-year probation.

A condition of that probation is: "You shall not go to areas where the Mesa Police Department are conducting an investigation, and you shall not record any members of the Mesa Police Department while you are on probation."

Ruff, 32, told the Gilbert Sun News he is appealing.

Ruff, who recently became a father, believes he's being wrongly punished for exercising his constitutional rights.

"I am allowed to walk around and film things," he said in court before sentencing. "I am allowed to swear in front of a police officer in close proximity. It's called the First Amendment, freedom of speech and protest."

But Judge Raymond Schumacher ruled that Ruff went beyond protected First Amendment activity, which has been widely interpreted to include the right to film in public, in the four cases he was charged for.

"In terms of the First Amendment, I think the prosecution is correct in their statements, Mr. Ruff, that the police, really their concern is, one, the safety of themselves and the safety of others, especially when they're trying to do investigations," he said before sentencing Ruff.

"The fact that you would've just shown up and recorded is one thing; the fact that you would retort and say the things you did is another. You escalated things. You escalated things, and you did it purposefully and you did it intentionally," the judge told Ruff.

While filming, Ruff sometimes engages in heated debate with police officers when they command him to do something he believes is not required.

If he is told to move away after arriving to film police, often to the other side of a street, Ruff tells the officer he doesn't have to because he is far enough away and is not interfering with the investigation.

Belligerent tone

His arguments are based on his understanding of the law, but his tone frequently devolves into insults and disrespect.

"You solicited a trespass you stupid (expletive)," Ruff yells in one video at an officer as he trespasses with six other auditors. "You solicited it. We watched you, you f----- idiot."

For that episode, Ruff received a 180-day suspended jail sentence, and was order to take counseling and anger management classes.

In the same video, Ruff and others continue to badger the officer with insults as he walks alone across an empty lot to his patrol vehicle. Some shine a light in the officer's face when he turns to the crowd.

The judge referenced this video in particular in explaining his sentence.

"The video that I looked at, I looked at it several times, where you approached the officers and would yell in their faces and say the things you did, especially when there was a group of people, and I could see the officer walking away, and clearly the officer had concerns for his safety," Schumacher said, adding:.

"Things were escalated, and Mr. Ruff, what I think is really clear ... I think you believe that that is constitutionally protected speech, and I'm going to respectfully disagree with you."

In another case, an officer testified that Ruff was too close as he was conducting a traffic stop, which distracted his attention, and Ruff didn't obey commands to move away.

In a trespassing incident, Ruff walked part way up the stairs from the first floor of the City Plaza Building to the second without authorization.

Schumacher cited several factors for giving five days of jail with the prospect of more.

"It's based upon your prior criminal history. It's based upon the number of cases you've picked up in this court. It's based upon the conduct that you continue to show and the disdain that you continue to show not only in this court but others," he said.

A decade ago, Ruff pled guilty to armed robbery and finished a seven-year sentence in 2017. He said he has been clean since then and started a local business.

Ruff said in his closing statement that jail was not appropriate for the case, and noted his partner was about to give birth.

But he also remained cantankerous in court, calling the judge and prosecutor "traitors to the Constitution."

"You cannot criminalize (filming), but here we are in a joke municipal court and you just criminalized it and you're about to sentence me, so have fun."

"I do not want to impose that jail time. I want you to change your behaviors — that's the whole point of this Mr. Ruff," Judge Schumacher said.

Ruff wouldn't say whether he plans to abide by the terms of probation if the ruling is upheld when asked by the Tribune, saying it is illegal and "you're asking the wrong questions."

"I want to make real changes. I want caselaw in my name for Arizona. I want to help bring true freedom back to at least my state," he said.

Andre Miller, pastor of the New Beginnings Christian Church in Mesa, has served as a community liaison to the Mesa Police Department and knows Ruff.

"I don't agree with all of his tactics," Miller said, "He's an antagonist at times. I don't agree with that. But I also don't agree that his rights should be taken away from him as a citizen. ... Probation is to keep them in line from breaking laws, (but) I do not know that recording police officers is illegal."

Still, Miller's advice to Ruff is "don't die on the sword for this. ... Figure out what he needs to do legally. Make sure that he protects himself and he doesn't find himself running afoul of the law or his probation."

(c)2022 East Valley Tribune (Mesa, Ariz.)
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