LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles Board of Supervisors yesterday approved a settlement with the ACLU Foundation of Southern California (ACLU SoCal) and three photographers who were detained by L.A. County Sheriff's Department (LASD) deputies while shooting photos in public places.
ACLU SoCal and the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP sued the county and individual deputies in 2011 on behalf of photographers Shawn Nee, Greggory Moore and Shane Quentin. The suit charged deputies with violating the photographers’ First and Fourth Amendment rights by detaining, searching and questioning them for nothing more than taking photographs of Metro Rail turnstiles, oil refineries and traffic whizzing by a court house.
The settlement includes $50,000 in damages for the photographers and implements training for deputies interacting with photographers or members of the public who are taking photos in public places.
“The training established by this settlement should ensure that photographers around Los Angeles County — as well as the general public — can exercise their right to free expression without unnecessary harassment,” said Peter Bibring, senior staff attorney at ACLU SoCal. “We are heartened by the county’s willingness to address this issue with a common-sense approach that will become standard practice from now on.”
The training, supplied through a newsletter detailing the LASD policy and given to all new recruits and to all deputies assigned to patrol, states that members of the public “have a First Amendment right to observe, take photographs, and record video in any public place where they are lawfully present” and prohibits deputies from “interfering, threatening, intimidating, blocking or otherwise discouraging” photographers from taking photos or video unless they are violating a law.
The training also makes clear that members of the public “have the right to photograph and record video of peace officers engaged in the public discharge of their duties” so long as they “are in a place they have a legal right to be present,” and forbids LASD deputies from requiring any person to show pictures or video without a warrant, or from deleting or destroying any photographic, audio or video recording under any circumstances. The training called for by the settlement has been in effect since April 2014. Part of the settlement requires the LASD to confer with ACLU SoCal before making any changes to the new policy before 2018.
“The new training provides guidance to deputies that will allow them to do their jobs without limiting the rights of Los Angeles residents to take photographs in public,“ said Geelan Fahimy, an associate at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP and a member of the legal team.
“The settlement of this case is a victory for freedom of expression and could improve relations between deputies and the public they serve for years to come,” said Hector Villagra, executive director of ACLU SoCal.
In recent years many police departments, including LASD, have instituted “suspicious activity reporting” programs designed to train officers to report certain activities believed to have a potential link to terrorism. Many departments include photography among the activities that should be reported.
Nee v. LASD, filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, detailed incidents of harassment by deputies of the three plaintiffs that seemed indicative of these widespread policies:
  • Plaintiff Moore, a reporter for the Long Beach Post, was on a public sidewalk taking pictures of passing drivers for a story on distracted driving, when 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. When Moore and the National Press Photographers Association pursued the incident, they were told that taking pictures of a courthouse was an indicator of potential terrorism, and that it would be appropriate for deputies to frisk a photographer as they approached him.
  • 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 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.

Download the settlement. Contact: Peter Bibring, (213) 977-5295, pbibring@aclusocal.org