LAPD Detains A Photographer For 'Interfering' With A Police Investigation… From 90 Feet Away
from the also-possession-of-camera-with-intent-to-distribute-recordings dept
Words like “interference” or “obstruction” seem to be thrown around quite frequently when law enforcement officers decide they’d rather not be filmed while on duty. How the passive act of filming can interfere with investigations or obstruct officials is left to the imagination. Fortunately (I guess…), law enforcement officials have very vivid imaginations. This allows them to arrest, detain, hassle or confiscate devices as needed, in order preserve the peace by chilling speech.
The latest definition of “interference” stretches the limits of credulity — to nearly 100 feet.
Shawn Nee is an award winning street and documentary photographer living in Hollywood, California. He says that on June 2, 2013, his right to take photos under the First Amendment was violated when the Los Angeles Police Department officers detained him while working in Hollywood.
Nee was standing on a residential sidewalk taking pictures of a man he had been photographing for years when LAPD officers showed up about 90 feet away to investigate a domestic dispute.
The whole incident, caught on “tape” thanks to the three body cameras Nee wears, shows officers covering a lot of ground to reach the “interfering” photographer. As is almost always the case, the officers’ first move is intimidation, with one demanding Nee identify himself and his employer.
When this fails, the officers demand he stop filming and put his camera down. Nee asks why he’s being detained.
OFFICER: For interviewing … interfering with a police investigation.
Hmm. Passively operating a camera from 90 feet away seems like the least efficient way to “interfere” with a police investigation. Maybe the sound of the shutter was distracting.
Nee was then taken to the station and detained while officers attempted to question him. Unfortunately for the interfered, Nee asserted his right to remain silent and refused to speak until his lawyer was present. After 90 minutes he was released — without being charged.
After being released, Nee spoke to a police supervisor who offered this “insight” on the interference claims.
NEE: My understanding is that I was detained for taking photos in a public space.
VIDAL: When it interferes with the job of police then it becomes a problem. At that point, you no longer have that freedom to go ahead and take your pictures.
Possibly. Possibly not. Vidal makes it seem cut-and-dried, but it really isn’t. This all depends on the laws governing the police department. California’s penal code gives law enforcement officers a lot of leeway when deciding what does or doesn’t “interfere” with an officer performing his duties, but it’s still hard to see how this fits a person standing 90 feet away taking pictures.
148. (a) (1) Every person who willfully resists, delays, or obstructs any public officer, peace officer, or an emergency medical technician, as defined in Division 2.5 (commencing with Section 1797) of the Health and Safety Code, in the discharge or attempt to discharge any duty of his or her office or employment, when no other punishment is prescribed, shall be punished by a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by imprisonment in a county jail not to exceed one year, or by both that fine and imprisonment.
In fact, it would seem that any “delay” was caused by the officers’ decision to hassle a photographer, rather than continue in their “discharge of duty.” Another way to look at this is that the officers felt that questioning and detaining Nee was actually the “duty” they were “discharging,” and his refusal to state his name “obstructed” or “delayed” them. Of course, that assumes the photography itself was a criminal activity, which it certainly wasn’t.
Either way, the line of reasoning being pushed by Vidal is suspect, if for no other reason than Vidal himself isn’t the most trustworthy of cops.
Sergent Vidal was named as a “problem officer” by the Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department (Christopher Commission) in the early 1990s, as reported by the Los Angeles Times in 1995. The Commission named 44 officers with “six or more complaints of excessive force or improper tactics between 1986 and 1990.”
More disappointing, this specious line of reasoning was upheld yet again by another member of the LAPD.
Reason TV showed the video to Andy Neiman, the officer-in-charge at the Media Relations Section at the LAPD. He said he could not comment on the video specifically but said of individuals taking pictures, “If their physical proximity to the investigating officers becomes interfering where an officer has to stop what they’re doing to admonish that individual that they’re too close or could you stand back because they are distracting from the officer’s business, then that’s where it becomes an issue.”
90 feet away can’t be remotely considered “physical proximity” unless we’re talking building locations. It’s pretty tough to sell the better part of 100 feet as being close enough to interfere with police business. Neiman probably knows better than to comment on a video showing officers confusing 90 feet of separation for “standing between the officer and the door,” as the LAPD is currently being sued by Nee and two other photographers for past abuses.
At some point, the perceived benefits of shutting down citizens with cameras are going to be outweighed by the millions of dollars in lawsuit settlements. Until then, it appears the LAPD is going to continue allowing officers to use the term “interference” to violate the public’s First Amendment rights.