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Above the Law

Photography is Not a Crime: ACLU Suing L.A. Sheriff's Department For Detaining Photogs Simply Because They Took Pictures

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Thu, Oct 27, 2011 at 4:11 PM

click to enlarge Stop or we'll shoot. - JONATHAN CASTILLO
  • Jonathan Castillo
  • Stop or we'll shoot.
Updated at the bottom with juicy details about how this anti-photog movement in policing actually grew out of an LAPD policy. First posted at 1:29 a.m.

We got a lot of attention when we scolded Long Beach police Chief Jim McDonnell for declaring that detaining photographers for snapping pictures "with no apparent aesthetic value" is within department policy.

That kind of thinking, of course, is utterly unconstitutional bullshit. (Next thing you know they'll come after journalists for taking notes with no aesthetic value).

Maybe the ACLU has heard us, because the civil rights group is going after cops for ...

... "detaining and searching photographers" simply because they're taking pictures, according to an ACLU statement.

Unfortunately, the group didn't go after McDonnell's department. It's suing the already embattled L.A. County Sheriff's Department (inmate beatings, deputies shooting off-duty ... oh my) in U.S. District Court in L.A..

Interestingly, while it was a Long Beach Post photog (Sander Roscoe Wolff -- detained solely for taking shots of a refinery) who inspired our original post, it's another Long Beach Post reporter (Greggory Moore -- detained for shooting outside a courthouse), who appears to have inspired the ACLU to sue over deputies' actions.

The ACLU:

... Eight sheriffs deputies surrounded, frisked, and interrogated him, saying that because he was taking pictures across the street from the Long Beach courthouse, his behavior was suspicious.

The org says cops often detain photogs in the name of post-9/11 "suspicious reporting activity." In mentions these incidents:

LASD deputies detained and searched Shawn Nee for photographing turnstiles on the Los Angeles Metro, asking if he planned to sell the photos to al-Qaeda and threatening to put his name on the FBI's "hit list." On another occasion, deputies ordered Nee not to photograph on the sidewalk outside the W Hotel at Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. LASD deputies detained and searched Shane Quentin, a photographer with an M.F.A. from UC Irvine, while he was photographing brilliantly lit refineries in south Los Angeles at night, frisking him and placing him in the back of a squad car for about forty-five minutes before releasing him.

This is scary stuff, people. Journalists are some of the few citizens out there who get to police the police. If photogs are treated to Third World-style detention, this could seriously upset our democratic system.

Peter Bibring, senior staff attorney at the ACLU:

Photography is not a crime. It's protected First Amendment expression. Sheriff's deputies violate the Constitution's core protections when they detain and search people who are doing nothing wrong. To single them out for such treatment while they're pursuing a constitutionally protected activity is doubly wrong.

This could require federal intervention. Or, as we've suggested previously, maybe a flash mob, this time to take shots outside sheriff's headquarters, would send a message.

[Update]: We talked to Bibring, the ACLU senior staff attorney who has taken the lead on this case.

For one thing, our joke about being detained for taking notes is no joke. Under this policy taking notes around public buildings and places of interest is considered suspicious activity. Really.

Why not go after the Long Beach Police Department for its similar harassment?

Interesting story:

Bibring says that the "suspicious activity" policy enacted by many departments in the last few years is actually based on an LAPD initiative that lists 48 activities, including taking pictures (with "no aesthetic value") and notes, that could be considered suspect in a post-9/11 world.

As you might know, L.B. Chief McDonnel is an ex-LAPD Chief of Staff.

The counsel said that the sheriff's department, however, seemed to have the most incidents and most aggressive policing of people taking pictures, thus the ACLU targeted it in hopes of setting a precedent that would be followed by all departments.

"Police officers can always ask questions and engage with the community," Bibring says, "but they can't frisk, search and treat us as criminal suspects when we're engaged in constitutionally protected activity."

When we mentioned that this was an especially dangerous tactic given that the press have a role in policing the police, Bibring told us the suit (link here) mentions an incident in which LA Weekly photographer Ted Soqui was allegedly harassed at the sheriff's controlled L.A. County Jail while taking shots for a cover story on deputies accused of beating people inside the facility.

That's one way of doing p.r. According to the suit six deputies showed up to deal with Soqui as he snapped shots of the jailhouse and a bail bonds business from a sidewalk. They allegedly told him photography wasn't allowed on Bauchet Street and that this was an issue of "national security."

When Soqui refused to tell them what the story was about that he was working on, one of the deputies even put his hand on is gun, according to the suit: The cops searched Soqui.

Soqui was not named as a plaintiff, however.

[@dennisjromero/djromero@laweekly.com]

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