A Troutville man and self-described “social activist” who was arrested earlier this year while shooting video near Franklin County High School has been found not guilty of trespassing, obstructing justice and loitering.
Roger Alan Morris, 55, drew attention early on the morning of Jan. 12, when he used his phone to videotape the campus. A crossing guard and some students were among the subjects he recorded.
Although Morris largely stayed on the sidewalk that runs past the school, there was a period where he stood on an adjacent grassy area, a space which he deemed an easement but which police and prosecutors say is school property.
Morris was approached first by a school administrator, Robbie Dooley, then by two law enforcement officers, a Franklin County sheriff’s deputy and Rocky Mount Police school resource officer Craig Sloan.
Both Dooley and the officers told Morris their names and asked him to identify himself, but he repeatedly declined.
After some discussion, which Morris also recorded and has posted on his YouTube channel, he was taken into custody and charged with the three misdemeanors.
“We’ve got 2,300 kids up here. We’re kind of concerned when people we don’t know is kind of coming … up around campus,” Sloan tells Morris in the video.
At Morris’ trial Wednesday in Franklin County General District Court, Dooley testified and, on cross-examination, told defense attorney Holland Perdue that during his initial conversation with Morris, he hadn’t directly demanded that Morris leave.
Dooley also acknowledged he told Morris that he could be charged with trespassing as a consequence of not identifying himself.
“If he didn’t tell you his name, how would you know he wasn’t banned” from campus, Commonwealth’s Attorney A.J. Dudley asked Dooley.
But Judge George Jones said he felt a conditional request for ID was “wishy-washy” and found Morris not guilty of trespass.
Jones also ruled that it was Morris’ right to maintain silence when approached by police, scuttling the obstruction charge, and he took issue with the town’s loitering ordinance.
A subsection of that rule prohibits refusal to identify one’s self to known law enforcement officers “if the surrounding circumstances are such as to indicate to a reasonable person that the public safety requires such identification.”
“It’s a section that seems to be a little dubious, in my mind,” Jones said, later adding, “I’m not declaring it unconstitutional.”
He called Morris’ activities unusual but not criminal.
“Strange is not anything illegal,” Jones said. “There’s nothing wrong with taking pictures, is there?”
That’s a question Morris is exploring with his camera and his YouTube channel, dubbed “Community Watch Roanoke Va.”
He’s one of scores of amateur cameramen posting “First Amendment Audits” on the website, testing to see if they meet resistance by filming in public places and declining to identify themselves.
Since 2016, Morris has posted more than 50 videos online, many of them recordings of himself approaching and filming government and municipal buildings, police traffic stops and airports, among other subjects.
Morris said after his trial Wednesday that he’s filed a complaint against the Rocky Mount police officer — he’s also posted video of himself going into the station for the grievance form — but it’s not yet clear how that will be resolved.
“I’ve never had any problems before,” he said Wednesday after his trial. “I’ve been detained before, but I’ve never been charged.”
An October 2017 video, shot near Hershberger Road, shows a woman angrily objecting to his camera, spraying him with an aerosol can and seeming to slap him. According to Morris’ written description, she brought criminal charges against him, but the case was later thrown out. Online court records show that an assault charge against Morris was dropped by prosecutors in June.
Asked about recent school violence and heightened calls for security in the wake of the Parkland, Florida shootings, Morris acknowledged those concerns.
“I regret I chose a school,” he said. “I would’ve rather had a different location to make my public stand.”