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California Parks Department Responds to Incident with Film Crew

June 13th, 2013 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

A month after being notified the California Department of Parks and Recreation has responded to a letter sent by NPPA general counsel Mickey Osterreicher regarding an incident during which parks employees detained a news crew and ordered them to delete their footage. KGTV Team 10 reporter Mitch Blacher and photojournalist Arie Thanasoulis were on public property at San Onofre State Beach on April 29, 2013 shooting footage for a story on the San Onofre Nuclear power plant when they were approached by a parks employee who accused them of trespassing, blocked their vehicle and ordered them to stop recording.

That employee, later identified as Bob Warman, then called State Parks Police Officer Ennio Rocca  who arrived and also proceeded to harass and threaten to arrest the pair for doing nothing more than recording video of the plant from an area open to the public.  Officer Rocca in turn called an unidentified employee of Southern California Edison, who arrived on the scene dressed in full SWAT gear. The three of them then ordered the crew to delete whatever video they had already shot under threat of arrest.While the trio claimed the news crew was standing on private property, the “no trespassing” sign they referred to turned out to be for “no parking,” while a fisherman and a woman walking her dog are visible in video footage in an area they alleged was “secure.” Although the news crew complied with the unreasonable demand and deleted a file containing the footage they were able to broadcast a story using video contained on a second file.

In his letter Osterreicher called the actions of the parks officers “a clear violation of the First and Fourth Amendments.” “It is one thing for officers to act when there is probable cause, Osterreicher wrote, “it is quite another to abuse that discretion in order to create a climate that infringes upon free speech under the pretext of safety and security.” He requested that the “matter be fully investigated and the employees properly disciplined if so indicated.” Osterreicher also advised the department by email of another incident that occurred on May 14, 2103 involving its officers, who detained and questioned two other photographers, JC Playford and Gerry Nance, filming near the power plant gate.

Responding to the NPPA, California Department of Parks & Recreation Chief Counsel Claire LeFlore agreed that the officers had overstepped their bounds. “In hindsight, they may have acted with an overabundance of caution while detaining the news crew,” LeFlore said, “but there was never an intention to violate anyone’s constitutional rights.” LeFlore noted that the incident came shortly after the Boston Marathon bombing, and at that “staff was on high alert for the possibility of additional terrorist actions.” Osterreicher responded to that statement in a subsequent interview, saying, “it is indeed unfortunate that well-meaning people still somehow equate an act of terrorism with photography.” “In the Boston tragedy it should be duly noted that law enforcement requested anyone who had pictures or video of the event provide them voluntarily – not delete them,” he added.

The importance of defending sensitive targets is well understood, but, as Osterreicher noted, “in any free country the balance between actual vigilance and over-zealous enforcement is delicate.” LeFlore says all personnel involved in the incident have been counseled on how to properly deal with the press “so that First Amendment rights can be protected and both the press and [parks] staff can carry out their functions with minimal interference with each other.” Officers have also been counseled that there is no legal basis for the seizure or destruction of photographs or video.

Osterreicher also sent copies of his letter to officials from Southern California Edison, the owners of the plant but received no response. In its report 10News quoted a spokeswoman for the utility, as saying, “a security officer ‘responded conservatively when he indicated to a television crew his preference that they stop filming and delete their video.'” Osterreicher also responded to that statement, “Indicating a preference that someone stop filming is a far cry from illegally ordering someone to do so under threat of arrest.” “Aside from being factually incorrect, the arrogance of Southern California Edison in their failure to respond to our letter, unrepentant statements to KGTV and behavior of their employees speaks for itself,” he concluded.

The NPPA has offered to work with the California Department of Parks and Recreation to improve their guidelines and training regarding these matters in order to avoid similar situations. The parks department says it will consider NPPA suggestions in implementing an expanded staff training program.

KGTV reporter Mitch Blacher said in an email, “It is encouraging to see the California state parks police work to remedy the oppression of constitutional rights by their officers,” adding, “As American citizens and working journalists our treatment was highly troubling.” “More questions need to be asked as to why California parks police and staff followed the direction of non-sworn private security personnel instead of the federal and state constitutions they swore an oath to uphold.”  1oNews Special Projects Executive Producer Ellen McGregor added, “As a manager behind-the-scenes, who talked for quite some time on the phone with parks police that day, Mickey’s offer train the agencies on the First and Fourth Amendments proves the NPPA’s commitment to a free press, and the journalists at KGTV are grateful.”

Posted in Access, Assault on Photographers, Attack Photographers, California, detained, First Amendment, First Amendment rights, Fourth Amendment, Fourth Amendment rights, National Press Photographers Association, News Photography, Newsgathering, NPPA, photographers, Photographers' Rights, photojournalism, Police, Public Photography, Recording, Regulations limiting photography, trespass | No Comments »

Charges Against 2 Student Journalists Dropped in Atlanta

October 15th, 2012 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Charges against two student journalists arrested while covering the Occupy Atlanta protests last year have finally been dropped. College journalists Alisen Redmond of The Sentinel at Kennesaw State University and Judith Kim of The Signal at Georgia State University were arrested by police on November 5, 2011 on charges of “obstruction of traffic,” even though both women were standing with a group of other media reporters on a street that police had already closed to traffic.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed announced the decision to drop the charges on October 13 during a conference held by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. When asked why he had failed to address the matter sooner, Reed responded that “he had not heard anything about it in the press or from his assistants.” Upon learning that the charges had been dropped, NPPA General Counsel Mickey H. Osterreicher said, “we applaud the city’s actions and hope this incident will serve as an example to others that it is never too late to make sure that justice is served.”

Osterreicher had sent Mayor Reed a letter on October 1 asking him to dismiss the charges against the students. Among other things, the letter, written on behalf of The American Society of News Editors, The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, The Atlanta Press Club, Cable News Network, Inc., The American Society of Media Photographers and The Student Press Law Center, urged Mayor Reed to “use your good offices to help seek an immediate dismissal of these charges in the interest of justice.”

An even earlier letter from The Student Press Law Center’s Executive Director Frank LoMonte was sent on November 7, 2011. In that letter LoMonte asked Mayor Reed to “immediately initiate an investigation into the circumstances of these student journalists’ arrests, and that you instruct the Police Department to withdraw all charges against the students and against any journalist whose ‘crime’ consists of standing on public property non-disruptively gathering news.”

NPPA has repeatedly pointed out to numerous groups and law enforcement agencies that actions by officers to interfere with and detain those engaged in Constitutionally protected activity under color of law is wrong. The NPPA has also strongly objected to journalists being harassed, intimidated and arrested while covering news stories because they were not considered to be “properly credentialed” by the police.

Posted in Assault on Photographers, Attack Photographers, detained, First Amendment, First Amendment rights, National Press Photographers Association, News Photography, Newsgathering, NPPA, Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Wall Street Arrests, photographers, Photographers' Rights, photojournalism, Police, Recording Police, Student, students | No Comments »

Florida Prosecutor Drops Charges Against NPPA Member; Lawsuit Filed

March 30th, 2012 by Mickey Osterreicher

In January of this year Stephen Horrigan, an NPPA member was charged with felony eavesdropping and misdemeanor obstruction for using his cellphone to record a traffic stop by police officers in North Port, Florida. Horrigan came out of his nearby home to see what was going on and determine the newsworthiness of the situation. For doing nothing more than that, as he stood with other members of the public, he ended up spending a night in jail while facing a five year prison term if convicted on the eavesdropping charge. Adding insult to injury the police seized his phone as “evidence” and held it until recently.

On January 30. 2012 NPPA sent a letter to North Port Police Chief Kevin Vespia, strongly objecting to “the treatment and arrest of NPPA member and freelance photojournalist Stephen P. Horrigan.” The letter went on to state “in addition to the arrest, the fact that Mr. Horrigan’s camera was unlawfully seized is also extremely troubling. We believe that his video of the incident will show that officers acted in an arbitrary, capricious and unprofessional manner and appeared to have no concept of the First and Fourth Amendment rights granted under the United States Constitutions as well as similar protections provided by Florida law.” The letter concluded with the request “that the charges against Mr. Horrigan be immediately dropped; that his equipment and any recordings made by him be immediately returned; and that this incident be fully investigated. We further request that your department immediately issue orders directing officers to cease such activity and also that your department implement revised training for all officers regarding these matters.”

This case was covered extensively in the press by Billy Cox of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and Carlos Miller of Photography is Not a Crime. As a justification for trampling on the rights of a citizen they produced a Probable Cause Affidavit and also referred to “a legal guideline that our officers have read and discussed during roll call. The issue here is not the video portion but the audio portion. This is the current guideline we use for cases like these. The guideline was issued by the legal counsel of the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and permission was granted for distribution,” according to North Port Police Captain Robert Estrada, in an email.

After reviewing that “January 2010 North Port Police Bulletin #10-12” along with a Law Enforcement News Letter the NPPA sent a scathing email back to Captain Estrada and Chief Vespia citing cases and correcting the misinformation provided in the bulletin concerning the circumstances under which there may and may not be a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” Although there had been some positive dialogue between NPPA and the North Port Police there was no response to the email or even acknowledgement that it had been received.

In February an attorney from the Florida ACLU, Andrea Mogensen agreed to represent Mr. Horrigan, who as of March 11, 2012 had still not heard from the State Attorney’s Office (SAO) as to whether they planned to move forward on the original charges. On March 13, 2012 the Herald-Tribune printed a column by Eric Ernst supporting Horrigan’s’ position. Shortly thereafter Horrigan filed (on his own) a Motion for Hearing: A Plea for Relief from Prior Restraint seeking the return of his smartphone, battery and memory card, and alleging, among other things that the seizure of those items violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article I, Section 4 of the State of Florida Constitution as being a form of prior restraint on his ability to publish that material. He also asserted that as the operator of “a web-site news-gathering ‘blog’ and dues paying member of the National Press Photographers Association” he may not have any greater rights under the First Amendment than the public but that he enjoyed no less right because of it.

A week later a detective came to his house at 7am to tell him that he could pick-up his phone at the evidence room. In utter surprise he found that the video had not been deleted, although he believes that it had been viewed or copied. He posted it on YouTube for everyone to see. So far it has over 4,200 hits. The Herald- Tribune posted an editorial urging police, prosecutors and legislators to improve their guidelines, training and practices and also revise the eavesdropping statute.

Yesterday the SAO declined to prosecute and dropped the charges, noting in a memo that the people could not meet their burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt and also questioned whether the officer had an expectation of privacy in this instance. As for the “resisting, obstructing, or opposing an officer without violence charge,” State’s Attorney Eric Werbeck concluded that Horrigan did not meet any of the elements constituting that crime either.

While the NPPA is gratified to see that prosecutors had the common sense to drop these charges (as has happened in almost all such cases around the country) it is too bad that the North Port police did not use the same good judgment. As is often said in police parlance “we can do this the easy way or the hard way.” The latter choice resulted in six-figure settlements in two recent cases. Once again, it appears that police ignorance and arrogance concerning constitutional rights may result in another costly combination, ultimately born by taxpayers who can ill afford it.

In a late-breaking development Ms. Mogensen announced in a press release that she has filed a notice with the City of North Port claiming monetary damages in excess of $200,000.00 based upon false arrest, retaliation for the exercise of First Amendment rights, and malicious prosecution.

Posted in Access, confiscated, detained, False Arrest, First Amendment, First Amendment rights, Florida, FLorida ACLU, Fourth Amendment, Fourth Amendment rights, Lawsuit, Legal, Malicious Prosecution, National Press Photographers Association, News Photography, Newsgathering, NPPA, photographers, Photographers' Rights, photojournalism, Police, Public Forum, Public Photography, Reasonable Expectation of Privacy, Recording, Recording Police, retaliation for the exercise of First Amendment rights, Search and Seizure, video cameras | 2 Comments »

NPPA Objects to Interference With & Detention of Journalists by Chicago PD

March 19th, 2012 by Mickey Osterreicher

The NPPA sent a letter to Chicago Superintendent of Police, Garry F. McCarthy, objecting to the interference with and detention of two (2) Chicago journalists and requested that the incident be fully investigated. WGN reporter Dan Ponce and WMAQ photographer Donte Williams, were standing on a public sidewalk outside a hospital while covering the fatal shooting of a six-year-old girl.

According to reports and video recorded at the scene a Chicago police officer (identified by nametag as Ward, 010 District, Ogden) is heard using profanity as he orders journalists who were standing on a public sidewalk to move across the street. He is also heard to say “your first amendment rights can be terminated if you create a scene.” When asked how they were creating a scene he responded, “your presence is creating a scene,” when in fact there was no “scene” until this officer created one by issuing an unlawful order.

In a statement released yesterday, the Chicago Police Department said that “members were attempting to protect and respect both the grieving family members of the child, and the memory of the child herself during a very stressful time for all parties involved.” The Mission Statement and Core Values of the Chicago Police Department states (among other things) that it “is committed to protect the lives, property, and rights of all people, to maintain order, and to enforce the law impartially.”

In its letter “NPPA asserts that your officers failed to uphold any of those values. Furthermore, it is neither a police officer’s duty or right to decide what is appropriate news coverage of any story. So long as news personnel are in a public forum and not violating any ordinances they have a right to gather news unfettered by the personal feelings or opinions of law enforcement. Anything less may be considered a form of prior restraint or censorship.”

NPPA also expressed its concern that the apparent lack of discipline and training of CPD officers will result in further incidents during the upcoming NATO Summit meeting in May.

A copy of the letter was also sent to the Hon. Rahm Emmanuel, Mayor, City of Chicago, Frank Whittaker, General Manager, WMAQ-TV and Greg Caputo, News Director, WGN-TV

Posted in Access, Chicago, Chicago Police, detained, First Amendment, First Amendment rights, Fourth Amendment, Fourth Amendment rights, Illinois, law, Legal, National Press Photographers Association, News Photography, Newsgathering, NPPA, photographers, Photographers' Rights, photojournalism, Police, Public Photography, Recording, Recording Police, Search and Seizure, video cameras, WGN, WMAQ | 4 Comments »