Twenty years ago in a little Upstate New York city called Auburn, most famous for its massive maximum security prison, I came within a whisker of getting packed off to jail for refusing to obey a court order to hand over a leaked hospital lab slip.
The tiny piece of green and white paper, which had been sent to me, showed that an off-duty state trooper had a blood alcohol level well over the legal limit when he smashed his Corvette into a guardrail late one night.
He was never charged in the crash, which nearly killed him.
I wrote a story about the cover-up, relying on that little slip of paper to prove the trooper had done wrong (and so, too, had the police and emergency personnel who helped hide the fact that he'd been drinking).
It created a stir, as you might expect.
The trooper was livid so he sued - but not me, since he had no case. Instead, he sued the hospital that had saved his life, for failing to protect his medical privacy.
The key to his case was that little slip of paper. Without it, he couldn't prove they'd failed to keep it secure.
I refused to hand it over, worried that it might be possible to trace my source if his lawyers got their hands on it.
One day in court, when the county sheriff showed up with a new uniform and gleaming handcuffs attached to his belt, I realized the judge had reached the breaking point. He planned to put me behind bars for contempt because I wouldn't bend.
Even then, with the TV cameras rolling, I refused to go along with the order.
But I did tell the judge that I had "new evidence" that I could only disclose in chambers. He bought it.
I didn't really have any new evidence. I made up some nonsense about the way the paper had been folded perhaps showcasing a source for it.
The judge took the opportunity to delay the case and then to knock heads in private to get it settled. The hospital finally apologized and that was that. It was over.
But I got a dose of what this job can require.
I've been grateful that for the past 20 years, there's never been a story that threatened to put me in jail. I can live without that happening again since it is sort of scary to contemplate.
I do want people to know, though, that I'll go all the way to protect a source.
So if there's ever another drunken trooper....
Copyright 2010. All rights reserved. Contact Steve Collins at firstname.lastname@example.org