By By Richard WintonTiffany Hsu and Susannah Rosenblatt
Jan 05, 2008 | 12:00 AM
Britney Spears was hospitalized as a Los Angeles court commissioner Friday barred her from visiting her two young sons. But it was the behavior of the paparazzi that was generating debate after a bizarre media swarm outside her hillside mansion.
Spears is perhaps the most pursued celebrity in Hollywood. So when she allegedly refused to hand over one of her children at the end of a custody visit Thursday night, dozens of photographers were outside her door.
Many more converged on the Studio City house -- including some groupies -- after police and paramedics arrived.
Then, as Spears was strapped to a gurney and wheeled into an ambulance, photographers followed the van to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center even though it had an escort of a dozen police cars.
The entire drama was blogged in real time and broadcast live on local TV. The tale was burning up Internet traffic Friday, but there was sentiment -- even within the celebrity journalism world -- that things might have gone too far.
Although photographers have long followed Spears and other stars around when they shop, hit the clubs and take hikes, the 24/7 stakeout in which even the most private moments become breaking news is something relatively new.
"There are about 50 to 60 guys who follow her wherever she goes. If it is the middle of the night, five or 10 of them will be on her," said Frank Griffin, a veteran paparazzo and co-owner of the Bauer-Griffin agency. "What you saw last night, it has been like that for a while wherever she goes. She has nothing left but those moments."
Griffin and others said Spears' latest troubles underscore the growing aggressiveness of a determined group of paparazzi who follow the star. wherever she goes. They endure hours of mundane tasks in hopes of getting "money shots," such as the time the pop star shaved her hair off at a San Fernando Valley salon. Griffin said the mainstream too has joined the chase.
Some photographers have long said Spears loves the attention of the paparazzi, and she is often seen posing. And there are definitely those who believe Spears needs to take responsibility for her actions.
"People don't necessarily need to be informed about everything in her life, but a lot of people still look up to her," said James Benson, 39, a computer analyst from Compton, as he hung out on Robertson Boulevard, a favorite spot for Spears and the paparazzi. "She does have a responsibility to keep her nose clean."
But others in the trendy shopping district say the photographers have become part of the problem.
"Even a year ago, the paparazzi were going too far, and it keeps getting worse," said Los Angeles waitress and model Amanda Pugh. "If they just left her alone, she could maybe get herself together."
A similar debate was being waged on some celebrity news websites, with some readers expressing sympathy for Spears and rage at paparazzi for invading her privacy.
"So paparazzi now you should be happy, you followed her each second taking photos and videos to fill your website and earn money by destroying others life," one reader wrote on US magazine's website.
"Don't kid yourself, we're all contributors to this disaster," wrote another reader.
The increasingly aggressive role of the paparazzi has been an issue in Hollywood circles for several years.
Two years ago, a group of Hollywood lawyers who represent stars urged the L.A. County district attorney's office to consider filing stalking charges against some photographers who constantly follow their subjects. The request came after a series of incidents in which stars said they got into car accidents because photographers had been pursuing them.
In one case, prosecutors charged a photographer with assault after he allegedly pushed his way into a birthday party for one of Reese Witherspoon's children at Disney's California Adventure. (The photographer died before the case went to trial).
L.A. prosecutors declined to file charges against another paparazzo who allegedly chased Witherspoon from her gym through the streets of L.A. to her home.
Prosecutors concluded that although the photographer's actions frightened Witherspoon, they didn't amount to false imprisonment.
On Thursday, authorities responded to a call about 8 p.m. after a standoff had begun at Spears' home.
Ex-husband Kevin Federline's bodyguards had gone to her house to pick up Sean Preston, 2, and Jayden James, 1, who were scheduled to return to their father's custody, authorities said.
By the time officers arrived at the home, Spears had turned over her older son to the bodyguards but had locked herself in her bedroom/bathroom suite with Jayden James, according to Los Angeles Police Department officials familiar with the case.
Officers reported that she was incoherent and arguing with officers in a way that made no sense, the LAPD sources said.
Police determined that Federline legally had custody of the children at that time, said Officer Ana Aguirre, a department spokeswoman. Officers waited about three hours before Spears agreed to leave the home; the children were turned over to Federline peacefully, officials said. (The youngest of the children was taken to the hospital by ambulance for unspecified reasons.)
Spears was not arrested but was hospitalized "for her own welfare," said Officer April Harding, another LAPD spokeswoman.
Spears' behavior became increasingly erratic in 2006. There were paparazzi photos showing her driving down Pacific Coast Highway while holding her infant son in her lap rather than securing him in a child safety seat, which led to an inquiry by L.A. County child welfare officials. That was followed by her trips to drug rehab and her shaving her head. Then she was slapped with misdemeanor charges after she allegedly left the scene of an accident.
A court commissioner subsequently gave Federline temporary custody and Spears limited visitation rights to their children. In the wake of Thursday night's incident, Court Commissioner Scott Gordon on Friday indefinitely suspended Spears' visitation rights with her two toddlers.