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LA County Agrees to Pay Photographers $50K for Harassment

An LA County Sheriff's Department deputy talking on the phone while driving — which is illegal in California. (photo by Heather Anne Campbell/Flickr
An LA County Sheriff’s Department deputy talking on the phone while driving — which is illegal in California. (photo by Heather Anne Campbell/Flickr)

In the resolution of a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California, Los Angeles County will pay three photographers who were harassed by members of the LA County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) a total of $50,000 in damages. The LASD has also begun implementing training for its deputies in an effort to teach them to respect people’s right to take pictures in public.

The lawsuit against LA County and the LASD was brought more than three years ago by the ACLU on behalf of three photographers: Greggory Moore, Shawn Nee, and Shane Quentin. All experienced separate incidents of harassment at the hands of deputies for photographing in public areas. From the ACLU announcement of the case in 2011:

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.

… 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.

The ACLU charged that such behavior violated the plaintiffs’ first and fourth amendment rights, the former guaranteeing freedom of speech, the latter protecting citizens from unreasonable searches.

The case appears to have been settled last year, but the settlement only approved by the LA Board of Supervisors — and thus announced by the ACLU — last week. It binds the County to pay the plaintiffs a collective $50,000 “in damages for physical injury and emotional distress” as well as $340,000 in legal fees and costs.

The settlement also institutes photography-related training for LASD members, in the form of a newsletter. “Photography and the recording of video are common activities and are neither crimes nor indications of criminal activity, in themselves,” the document states. “Neither photography nor the recording of video, standing alone, can form the basis for a detention, arrest, or warrantless search.” The newsletter explicitly prohibits deputies from “interfering, threatening, intimidating, blocking or otherwise discouraging a member of the public” from shooting photography or video, so long as the person is not breaking any laws by being present at the site they are photographing or filming.

According to the terms of the settlement, the LASD must issue the newsletter to all employees, provide training on its content to department members, and incorporate its content into regular LASD training. Additionally, the department may not change the newsletter for the next three years without first consulting with the ACLU.

The settlement is certainly a victory, but many more like it will be necessary to protect photographers from being arrested and labeled terrorists in an age when countless police departments and even the US Department of Justice view taking pictures — something we all do all the time now — as a suspicious activity.

h/t PDN Pulse

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