TRENTON -- A newspaper reporter took the stand Wednesday in an ongoing legal battle between his paper and the state Attorney General's Office over a document he obtained in a child abuse case.
Isaac Avilucea, of The Trentonian newspaper, said the boy's mother voluntarily gave him the document - a complaint - in a hallway outside a courtroom in October.
"She handed me the document and said you can have it," Avilucea testified. The mother, Tashwan Ford, had first met with him at his newspaper office hours earlier, he testified, and told him about a hearing later in the day.
Avilucea said he later made a copy of the document - on a different floor of the courthouse - and gave the original back to the mother, and started to leave while phoning his boss.
Moments later, a man he did not know confronted him, and asked about the document, to which Avilucea responded: "I lawfully obtained this."
He kept walking. Sheriff's officers then briefly detained him.
Deputy Attorney General John Tolleris, called as a witness, gave a different account of the confrontation.
He testified Avilucea grabbed the document from the the mom and then tried to flee the courthouse when confronted - by him, an investigator and the boy's mother.
"I got it legally, I got it legally," Avilucea said as he hurried away, Tolleris testified. He was the state lawyer assigned to the case involving the boy.
During the incident, Tolleris was so concerned that he interrupted a court proceeding and announced to a judge, "A reporter just grabbed a complaint from a parent and is leaving he building."
The different recollections were one of many in the hearing, during which the boy's mother Tashawn Ford, as well as her mother, Tuesday Ford, who were both called to the stand in Mercer County Superior Court.
Tashawn Ford was called to the stand, but invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
The case originally stems from news stories published about the 5-year-old boy's father, who faces criminal charges after the boy was found with drugs in school twice.
The October hearing and complaint have to do with custody of the boy, the Trentonian has reported.
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After authorities realized Avilucea had the compliant, the Attorney General's Office filed a motion to bar The Trentonian from publishing any information in it, saying that it was confidential and it could harm the child if published.
It's called a prior restraint, and was initially approved by Mercer County Judge Craig Corson. The Trentoninan is trying to overturn the restraint.
Wednesday's hearing was held to determine if Avilucea - who has not been charged with a crime - obtained the compliant lawfully. Judge Lawrence DeBello did not rule after the hearing.
During the often contentious hearing, Avilucea sparred with Deputy Attorney General Erin O'Leary, who peppered him with detailed questions about how exactly he got the document.
Many times, Avilucea only answered: "I assert my journalistic privilege."
Twice, DeBello admonished Avilucea for his answers, once when O'Leary asked if had heard prior testimony from Tuesday Ford, and he answered: "If you can call it that."
Later, O'Leary and Avilucea sparred over what copier he used on the second floor - with Aviliucea invoking the privilege.
Avilucea's attorney, Bruce Rosen, objected several times, including when O'Leary wanted to question Avilucea about an interview he did with the Daily Beast, in which he called Gov. Chris Christies a "media-hating governor."
Later testimony centered on whether the state instructs people - like the boy's mother - that the complaints they are served with are confidential or not, and if the papers themselves are marked "confidential."
Tolleris said the documents are not marked confidential, and as to whether people who get them are instructed they confidential, he said, "Now we do."
Trentonian lawyer Eli Segal argued that since the state fails to police the confidentiality of the documents, they cannot now punish Avilucea. "There's no basis for going after the reporter when the government could plug the dam a few steps back in the process," Segal said.
Rosen said in court, and reiterated it afterwards, that the state has not met any burdens to prove Avilucea got the complaint in an unlawful manner. "We were pretty confident of that, and now we're even more convinced," he said.
The matter resumes in late March.
Kevin Shea may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@kevintshea. Find NJ.com on Facebook.