The ACLU of Southern California (ACLU/SC) and the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP today sued the County of Los Angeles and individual Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (LASD) deputies for detaining and searching photographers. The incidents of harassment occurred when photographers were taking pictures in public places where photography is not prohibited.
“Photography is not a crime. It’s protected First Amendment expression,” said Peter Bibring, senior staff attorney at the ACLU/SC. “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.”
The complaint is filed on behalf of three plaintiffs, who between them have been detained or ordered not to photograph by Sheriff’s deputies on at least six occasions. The complaint details similar incidents involving others, from amateur photographers to veteran photojournalists.
Plaintiff Greggory Moore, a reporter for the Long Beach Post, was on a public sidewalk taking pictures of passing drivers for a story on Distracted Driving Awareness month, 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. “I was surrounded by deputies and frisked blocks from my house, just for taking photographs in the middle of the day on a public sidewalk,” said Moore. When Moore and the National Press Photographers Association both 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.
The other plaintiffs suffered similar experiences. 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. Over the past several years, many police departments 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.
“Photographers in Los Angeles and nationwide are increasingly subject to harassment by police officers,” said Mickey H. Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association. “Safety and security concerns should not be used as a pretext to chill free speech and expression or to impede the ability to gather news.”
“Detaining people just for taking pictures isn’t just unconstitutional, it’s a waste of resources,” said Bibring. “It doesn’t keep Los Angeles safe, and it keeps officers away from investigating crime.”
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. It asks that the court order the Sheriff’s Department to stop detaining people solely based on the fact that they are taking photographs as well as to stop ordering people not to take photographs in public areas where photography is not prohibited, and also seeks compensatory and punitive damages.