Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Photography As A Criminal Activity

I enjoy photography as a hobby. But my hobby might one day get me arrested.

For example:

--White Plains, NY. March 17, 2006. Freelance photographer Ben Hider notices the flags outside the county courthouse waving in the wind. When he takes a few shots of the flags, he ends up being hauled in by court police officers. The zealous officers frisk and interrogate him. Hider, a British citizen with a green card, is threatened with deportation.

--July 2006. Philadelphia. A man is arrested for taking a photograph from his backyard with a cell phone. The subject of his imaging: police cars in the street during the arrest of a drug dealer in the neighborhood. The cell phone photog, Neftaly Cruz, a college senior, was grabbed, cuffed, and taken to jail. A neighbor says she heard the officer tell Cruz that he should have went into his house and minded his own business instead of taking pictures.

--August 7, 2006. New York City. The New York Civil Liberties Union expands its federal lawsuit in regards to NYPD officers unlawfully detaining and threatening photographers. The filing expands on a lawsuit on behalf of Rakesh Sharma, a documentary filmmaker who was detained last year for the act of being on a sidewalk and filming taxi cabs.

And I can also state that even a podunk like Plattsburgh, NY has had incidents of the city police leaning on someone just for taking a photograph. The officers have ordered the photographer to stop shooting and move along and also have even blocked his view. This is a violation of a little thing called the First Amendment.

Also, officers have demanded to see images taken with a digital camera via the LCD screen, a violation of a little thing called the Fourth Amendment.

What is going on? Don’t give me that terrorism crap. Most of these cases involve photography taken from public property of a scene or an event in plain public view.

Let’s use a bit of common sense: a halfway intelligent terrorist wouldn’t stand out like a sore thumb while taking photos to be somehow used for a violent act. He would take shots on the sly, using a concealed spy camera.

And with the way the police are acting towards photographers, it will turn out that only terrorists will end up with photographs, not law-abiding citizens.


Paul Kimball said...


With respect to the NYC filmmaker, there is no such thing as an absolute right to stand on a public street and film whatever you want. Many municipalities have bylaws in place that often require permits of some sort when you want to shoot in public areas, and then there's things such as release forms of people or companies that you shoot and which you may want to use in your film.

Once you begin filming for commercial reasons, a whole different set of rules applies.

Now, as for the tourists, that's a different story, but it should be noted that even here people have to be careful - the right of free expression is not absolute, especially when it runs up against the right of privacy. The last thing I want are people specifically taking pictures of me without my permission, for example (if I just happen to be a background person as they shoot something else, i.e. the Washington monument, that's a different story).

As always, the law is a moving target, and there's a lot of nuance here.

And then there's the whole terrorism thing, which is another matter altogether! :-)


Ray said...


How would you react in regards to the following scenario?

One evening you notice an ambulance and two police cars, lights flashing, in a public parking lot. Standing on the public sidewalk, you decide to take out your digital point-and-shoot camera and take a few shots without using a flash. You are around twenty feet or more away from the activity, in no way interfering the work of the ambulance crew or the police. The activity is in plain view. Someone has been injured and the EMTs are putting her on a stretcher.

A police officer walks up to you, blocking your view. He demands know what photos you have taken and also demands to see them on your camera’s review screen. You tell him that there is no law stopping a citizen from taking pictures. The officer says that is true, there is no law stopping you from taking pictures. But, using a firm tone, the officer says the injured person doesn’t want her picture taken (even though if the mainstream media were there, her picture would end up in the newspaper or on TV). He tells you to move along, his demeanor suggesting that if you don’t, you will be arrested.

As an American citizen, you are aware of your civil rights under the First and Fourth Amendments to the Constitution. Do you file a complaint with the authorities or don’t say a word, allowing the police to intimidate you from engaging in a legal activity?



Paul Kimball said...


If I'm the person on the strecher / gurney, I'm all for it. There is a line where freedom of speech meets a persons right to privacy. The last thing I would want to see is me, after an accident, on YouTube or Google Video or some such.

No right is absolute - it's impossible, because one right will often conflict with another. Then the balancing act begins. Which right gets the short end depends on the situation.

And I don't think you would necessarily see a news crew treated any differently than your hypothetical scenario. They are often told to move away by the police.

Of course, I don't see any violation of the fourth amendment in your scenario, and, as the private citizen is not a member of the press, and I don't see any real speech issue here, I don't see a first amendment violation either.

But I'll check the case law in my spare time, because it's an issue that interests me (Canadian law, of course, is always a bit different, so I'll check US case law).

Best regards,


Doug said...

Maybe the cops are hoping to catch the less-than-semi-intelligent terrorists. It may not be making us that much safer, but at least it may provide them a sense of accomplishment. And then perhaps they'll not be so hung up on revoking Constitutional rights.

A small sacrifice, I suppose.

This is why I always take crappy pictures that no one could find threatening.