The government’s war on cameras

C.J. Ciaramella Contributor
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Jerome Vorus was taking pictures of the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. last July when he decided to snap some photographs of a routine traffic stop.

Little did he know he would soon find himself detained by police for photographing them without permission. Of course, Vorus was well within his rights, but he still had to wait an hour and a half before the officers released him. (TSA employee caught stuffing passengers’ junk in his trunks)

Vorus filed a lawsuit last week against the District of Columbia and the four police officers involved in his detainment, claiming his Fourth and First Amendment rights were violated. He is being represented in his case by the American Civil Liberties Union.

There have been numerous cases like Vorus’ recently, where citizens are being detained, arrested or intimidated for documenting police activity or even just taking photos of government buildings.

“This is happening more and more,” Vorus said in a phone interview. “Police are arresting journalists, photographers and tourists, often using excuses like terrorism or security.”

Here’s a few more notable examples:

  • On June 2, Miami police seized a man’s cell phone at gunpoint and smashed it after the man recorded an officer-involved shooting.
  • A Rochester, New York woman was arrested in June for videotaping police from her front yard. She was charged with obstructing justice.
  • In January, two Illinois residents were charged with eavesdropping — a class I felony — after they recorded their encounters with Chicago police. One of the citizens, a woman, was recording her interview with two internal affairs investigators. She was filing a sexual harassment complaint against another Chicago police officer.
  • A motorcyclist in Maryland was also charged with eavesdropping in April after he uploaded a video to YouTube — caught on his helmet cam — of a state trooper stopping him with a drawn gun. Police showed up at his house four days after the traffic stop with a warrant for four computers, two laptops and his camera.

The spike in arrests for photography has mirrored the rise of cell phone cameras and YouTube, which has made it easy for citizens to act as journalists and spread their videos to thousands, sometimes millions, of viewers on the Internet.

“Suddenly people who didn’t normally have cameras did,” said Carlos Miller, a Miami-based journalist, photographer and blogger. “And they were taking pictures. We then saw a huge increase in cops telling people they couldn’t do that.”

Miller was arrested twice for photographing the police, once in 2007 and once in 2009. After his first arrest, Miller started a blog, Photography is Not a Crime, to document what happened. Since then, the blog has expanded to cover similar cases across the country.

Part of the problem is police were not used to being documented and not up to speed on the laws surrounding public photography.

“This is really a brand new subject,” said Rich Roberts, the public information officer for the International Union of Police Associations.

Roberts said police in these situations worry about biased editing or being targeted for retaliation. Even complete videos are subject to interpretation, often by people who don’t understand police procedure. Citizens can also cause a distraction or create a safety risk, even if they’re not actively interfering with the police, Roberts said.

“If I’m doing a potentially dangerous traffic stop, and a guy comes into my peripheral vision pointing something at me, then I’m going to be distracted,” Roberts said. “That can lead to a nasty situation.”

However, courts have looked unfavorably on overzealous arrests for photography. In almost all cases — except in states with aggressive wiretapping and eavesdropping laws, such as Illinois — judges have rejected officers’ justifications for arrest. After Miller’s first arrest, he was charged with nine misdemeanors and acquitted on all but one, which was later reversed on appeal.

“The general consensus is the act of videotaping in itself is not illegal, so long as the person recording the officer’s actions remains at a reasonable distance and does not interfere with the officer or create a safety situation,” Roberts said.

Police officers also have no reasonable expectation to privacy while in public and performing a public service.

But photographers’ troubles these days don’t end with snapping pictures of the police. Amateur and professional photographers are being arrested or detained for simply taking pictures of government buildings or transit stations.

For example, on June 12 a man was arrested by a Federal Protective Service Officer for photographing a federal courthouse in Dayton, Ohio. Others have been arrested for taking pictures of train and subway stations.

Mickey Osterreicher, the general counsel of the National Press Photographers Association, said he sees at least one case every two weeks of a citizen being harassed for completely legal photography. Over the past three or four weeks, he said, it’s been almost once a day.

“In a way it’s almost as if the war on terrorism has morphed in to the war on photography,” Osterreicher said. “Usually the justification is security, but nobody’s ever found any link between photography and terrorism. No treasure trove of photographs of targets or anything.”

What almost all parties agree is needed are well-defined policies and better training of those policies. Until then, law enforcement in the field will be relying on their own judgment, and cases like Jerome Vorus’ will likely keep popping up.

“It’s making the police look bad from a PR angle,” Miller said. “I have readers who say they used to respect cops, but now they don’t. That’s a big problem. Like journalists, cops have to be trusted by the public. Right now a lot of them are acting really stupid, and it ends up on YouTube.”

(Take, for example, the Niagara Transit Authority officer who told a person videotaping him that “if you take my picture again, I’m gonna break your fucking face.” The officer was suspended for two days after the video went viral.)

Updating state laws may be in order, too. David Rittgers, a legal policy analyst at the Cato Institute, said states with aggressive wiretapping laws should carve out explicit affirmations of the right of citizens to record police.

Roberts said many department are working on developing cogent policies, but for now the line on interference is still fuzzy.

“If, in the course of whatever incident, someone in any way interferes with the police, then they are in violation of the law,” Roberts said. “Period. But drawing that line is going to be very difficult if it’s not defined clearly.”

Michael Mayday contributed to this report.