LOS ANGELES (CBS) — Deputies with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department allegedly violated the constitutional rights of Southland photographers whose snapshots of public places they say were considered suspicious and possible indicators of terrorist planning, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday.
The complaint filed in U.S. District Court by the American Civil Liberties Union was filed on behalf of three plaintiffs who allege they have been detained or prohibited from taking photographs by sheriff’s deputies on at least six occasions in total.
“Photography is not a crime,” said Peter Bibring, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s Southern California branch. “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.”
The plaintiffs want a judge to direct the Sheriff’s Department to stop detaining people solely for their photography and to allow them to take pictures in public areas where photography is allowed.
Sheriff’s spokeswoman Nicole Nishida said the department had no immediate comment on the suit, which seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.
Plaintiff Greggory Moore, a reporter for the Long Beach Post, was on a public sidewalk taking photos of passing drivers for a story on Distracted Driving Awareness month when eight deputies surrounded, frisked and interrogated him, according to the suit.
Moore’s behavior was considered suspicious because he was taking pictures across the street from the Long Beach courthouse, the complaint says.
“I was surrounded by deputies and frisked blocks from my house, just for taking photographs in the middle of the day on a public sidewalk,” Moore said.
When Moore and the National Press Photographers Association sought an explanation, they were told that taking pictures of a courthouse was an indicator of potential terrorism, according to the complaint.
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,” according to the suit.
Another time, deputies ordered Nee not to take photographs on the sidewalk outside the W Hotel at Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the suit states.
Deputies detained and searched Shane Quentin, a cameraman 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 45 minutes before releasing him, according to the suit.
“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 Association. “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.”
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