[UPDATED with Long Beach Journo's Take:] ACLU Sues Sheriff's Deputies for Hassling LA and Long Beach Photographers Under Anti-Terror Policy
UPDATE, OCT. 28, 9:54 P.M.: The Long Beach Post's Greggory Moore has graciously agreed to share with Weekly readers his real-time coverage of moves officers from two separate police agencies made against him and colleague Sander Roscoe Wolff for snapping photos in the LBC.
As we reported yesterday, Moore is one of three plaintiffs is a federal suit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California (ACLU/SC) against the County of Los Angeles and individual Los Angeles Sheriff's Department (LASD) deputies for illegally detaining and searching photographers.
Here, in chronological order, are Moore's stories:
- The incident where Moore was surrounded by eight LASD deputies on a public sidewalk as he was snapping photos for a story on Distracted Driving Awareness Month;
- Coverage of the National Press Photographers' Association's letter to LA County Sheriff Lee Baca and Baca's letter in response where the sheriff, according to Moore, "misreports the incident" despite claiming to have "thoroughly investigated it."
Moore speaks with the commander of the Long Beach Courthouse and hears "some pretty outrageous things about police policy and training when confronted with 'potential terrorist' activity, like photographing a courthouse."
Moore tells the Weekly that last link featuring the unit commander's discussion of the officer training "really points to the crux of the lawsuit."
ORIGINAL POST, OCT. 27, 5:41 P.M.: The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California (ACLU/SC) sued the County of Los Angeles and individual Los Angeles Sheriff's Department deputies in federal court today for detaining and searching three photographers, including the Long Beach Post's Greggory Moore, who was snapping photos of passing cars from a public sidewalk for a Distracted Driving Awareness month story when he was surrounded, frisked and interrogated by eight deputies.
In August, we told you about Moore's interview with Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell, who defended his officers detaining Moore's colleague for snapping photos in the port area because he could have been a terrorist identifying future targets.
Meanwhile, there is an even more direct Orange County angle to the suit filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California by the ACLU/SC and the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP. Another plaintiff is Shane Quentin, an aspiring photographer in LA with an M.F.A. from UC Irvine. He was shooting stock photos of a large refinery in Carson around 1 a.m. Dec. 31, 2009, when he was hassled by LA County sheriff's deputies, one of whom allegedly threatened to place him on a "no-fly" list.
It happened to Quentin again around 1:20 a.m. on Jan. 21 when the photographer, who was trying to catch the "brilliantly lit" refineries in south Los Angeles, was confronted, frisked and placed in the back of a deputy's car for 45 minutes before being released.
The third plaintiff is Shawn Nee, who was photographing turnstiles in the Los Angeles Metro station when he was detained and searched by a deputy. The encounter, which was captured on YouTube, included the deputy asking the shooter if he planned to sell the photos to al-Qaeda and threatening to put his name on the FBI's "hit list."
The same three photographers have been confronted a total of six times by deputies, according to the ACLU/SC, which cites several other cases involving photographers who are not plaintiffs in the case. Among them is freelance photographer Ted Soqui, who was detained by six deputies after shooting exteriors of the LA County Men's Central Jail and a nearby bail bond business for an LA Weekly story on deputies abusing jail inmates. When Soqui refused to disclose the nature of the story he was working on, other than to say it was for a print newspaper, a deputy with his hand on his gun is alleged to have moved on the photographer.
"It's preposterous," Peter Bibring, senior staff attorney at the ACLU/SC, tells the Weekly about the Soqui encounter, and he feels the same about the others given the fact that there are First and Fourth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and billions of photographs being uploaded yearly via social networking.
"It is so commonplace," the attorney says of people snapping photos. "Yet, the simple act of taking a picture is considered suspicious activity."
The lawsuit asks the federal court to order the LA 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. The action also seeks compensatory and punitive damages.
The ACLU/SC claims the policy sheriff's deputies are operating under originated with the Los Angeles Police Department and has since become a model for cop shops across the nation. Officers are encouraged to fill out a "suspicious activity report" if any of 48 behaviors are witnessed on patrol beats, Bibring explains. While the majority of those behaviors deserve to raise alarm bells--such as stockpiling weapons--a handful are for things people who are not trying to blow up America do every day, like snapping pictures in their communities. "It's ludicrous," Bibring says.
"Photography is not a crime," he said. "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."
Seconding that emotion is Mickey H. Osterreicher, general counsel of the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA).
"Photographers in Los Angeles and nationwide are increasingly subject to harassment by police officers," Osterreicher says in a statement distributed by the ACLU/SC. "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."
Moore is not a professional photographer, but journalists often snap photos for stories and especially blog posts they write. Moore was working on a piece about Distracted Driving Awareness Month the afternoon of June 2 when he decided to step outside his apartment and shoot motorists stopped at a red light at the Ocean Boulevard and Magnolia Avenue intersection.
According to the complaint:
Moore was asked by sheriff's Sgt. Maurice Hill, who is one of the defendants named in the ACLU/SC suit, who he worked for and was told the Post. Moore then asked why he was being detained, and he was informed the Long Beach Courthouse was a "critical facility" and snapping photos of it (or, apparently, in that general direction), while not illegal, constitutes "suspicious activity" that can produce contact with sheriff's deputies.
But it "was not a sensitive area," Bibring, the ACLU/SC attorney, tells the Weekly. "This was not a place where dignitaries were around. It was a sidewalk in Long Beach, across the street from the courthouse, in a place where thousands of photographs are taken."
And, he noted, Moore was not using a spy pen or other secret camera. He was not hiding in the bushes. He was out in the open, openly shooting photos of drivers.
As his encounter with deputies was winding down, Moore asked for his camera back, but first a deputy said he wanted to see the photos contained in it. Moore showed him shots of distracted drivers, thinking he might get his camera back that way.
The NPPA sent a letter to the LASD in July over the incident involving Moore, just as the association also did to the Long Beach Police Department on behalf of the Post's Sander Roscoe Wolff, the photographer hassled for shooting near the port in June.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca responded with a letter of his own defending his deputies' actions with Moore, according to the NPPA and ACLU/SC, just as Long Beach Police Chief McDonnell did regarding his officers' treatment of Wolff.
The Wolff incident is not cited in the ACLU/SC lawsuit, which only targets the LASD.
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