The ACLU of Southern California sued the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and several of its deputies Thursday alleging they harassed, detained and improperly searched photographers taking pictures legally in public places.
The federal lawsuit alleges the Sheriff’s Department and deputies “have repeatedly” subjected photographers “to detention, search and interrogation simply because they took pictures” from public streets of places such as Metro turnstiles, oil refineries or near a Long Beach courthouse.
“Photography is not a crime. It’s protected 1st Amendment expression,” said Peter Bibring, senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. “It violates the Constitution’s core protections for sheriff’s deputies to 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.”
Bibring said the policy and practices of the Sheriff’s Department reflect a widespread misuse of “suspicious activity reporting” under the auspices of Homeland Security and counterterrorism. Similar suits have been filed in several other states.
Los Angeles County sheriff’s Capt. Mike Parker said it is a deputy’s duty to ask questions.
“Should we really ignore suspicious activity?” Parker asked. “We have an obligation to the public to answer questions and we are going to ask people why are you taking that picture. It is our duty to protect the public.”
Parker said the department has not had a chance to review the lawsuit and could not answer specific questions about the incidents.
Thursday’s suit was filed on behalf of three photographers, who among them have been detained or ordered not to take pictures on at least six occasions.
Professional photographer Shawn Nee was detained and searched Oct. 31, 2009, for shooting images at the turnstiles of the Los Angeles subway system. Nee was shooting newly installed turnstiles at the Metro Red Line’s Hollywood and Western station when a deputy asked why he was taking pictures. Nee told the deputy he was not doing anything, the deputy warned him that photography was prohibited at the station because it is a terrorist target.
The deputy grabbed Nee, pushed him against a wall, searched him and lectured him about terrorism, the lawsuit alleges. He also threatened to forward Nee’s name to counterterrorism so it could be added to an FBI “hit list”
The incident was captured on video. According to the suit, the deputy was not disciplined despite a complaint.
Earlier this year, 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.
Greggory Moore, a reporter who works for the Long Beach Post, was on a public sidewalk taking pictures of passing drivers for a story on Distracted Driving Awareness month in June when several sheriff’s deputies surrounded, frisked and interrogated him. They said that because he was taking pictures across the street from the Long Beach Superior Court building, his behavior was suspicious.
“I was surrounded by deputies and frisked just blocks from my house, just for taking photographs in the middle of the day on a public sidewalk,” Moore said. According to the suit, Moore was forced to show deputies his photos to support his story. Later, a sheriff’s sergeant told Moore the investigation was related to terrorism. In response to a letter from the National Press Photographers Assn., Sheriff Lee Baca defended the deputies’ actions.
In another incident, deputies detained and searched Shane Quentin, a photographer with a master’s in fine arts from UC Irvine while he was taking pictures of brilliantly lighted refineries in South Los Angeles on Jan. 21. Deputies frisked Quentin and placed him in the back of a police cruiser for about 45 minutes before releasing him. Two years before, Quentin had been ordered twice by deputies to stop taking photos of the refineries, according to the suit.
The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court Central District and asks that the court order the Sheriff’s Department to stop detaining people solely on the fact that they are taking pictures. It also seeks compensatory and punitive damages.
Over the last several years, many police departments have instituted “suspicious activity reporting” programs designed to train officers to report certain activities in an effort to detect early surveillance by terrorist groups of potential targets.
In addition to the named plaintiffs, the suit alleges that several other photographers were detained for taking pictures of public buildings. Freelance photographer Ted Soqui was detained on the sidewalk outside the downtown jail while taking pictures for an L.A. Weekly story on jail abuse. Similarly, Catherine Dent was taking exterior photos of Men’s Central Jail for a school project and was detained and questioned.
“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 Assn. “Safety and security concerns should not be used as a pretext to chill free speech and expression.”