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Sheriff’s Department sued over detention of photographers

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Several photographers sued the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and several of its deputies Thursday, alleging that they were harassed, detained and improperly searched while taking pictures legally in public places.

“Photography is not a crime. It’s protected 1st Amendment expression,” said Peter Bibring, senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the photographers. “To single them out for such treatment while they’re pursuing a constitutionally protected activity is doubly wrong.”

Bibring said the Sheriff’s Department’s practices reflect a widespread misuse of “suspicious activity reporting” in the name of counterterrorism. Similar suits have been filed in several other states.

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“Should we really ignore suspicious activity?” sheriff’s Capt. Mike Parker asked. “We have an obligation to the public to answer questions, and we are going to ask people why are you taking that picture.”

Parker declined to comment on specific incidents.

Thursday’s suit was filed in U.S. District Court on behalf of the National Press Photographers Assn. and three photographers who have been detained or ordered not to take pictures on at least six occasions.

Professional photographer Shawn Nee was detained and searched Oct. 31, 2009, for shooting images at newly installed turnstiles at the Metro Red Line’s Hollywood and Western station. Nee told the deputy he was not doing anything illegal, but the deputy said the station was a terrorist target and that it was against Metropolitan Transportation Authority rules to take pictures there.

A video shows Deputy Richard Gylfie telling Nee: “Al Qaeda would love to buy your pictures, so I want to know if you are in cahoots with Al Qaeda to sell these pictures to them for terrorist purposes.”

The deputy pushed Nee against a wall and lectured him about terrorism, the lawsuit alleges. He also told Nee that his name could be added to an FBI “hit list.”

Greggory Moore, a Long Beach Post reporter, was interrogated by deputies while on a public sidewalk taking pictures of passing drivers for a story on Distracted Driving Awareness month in June. They said his behavior was suspicious because he was across the street from the Long Beach courthouse, according to the suit.

“I was surrounded by deputies and frisked just blocks from my house, just for taking photographs in the middle of the day on a public sidewalk,” Moore said. In response to a letter from the National Press Photographers Assn., Sheriff Lee Baca defended the deputies’ actions, saying “a courthouse is a Homeland Security hard target.”

In another incident, deputies detained and searched photographer Shane Quentin while he was taking pictures of brilliantly lighted refineries in South Los Angeles on Jan. 21, the suit says. Deputies frisked Quentin and placed him in the back of a police cruiser for about 45 minutes before releasing him.

The lawsuit asks that the court order the Sheriff’s Department to stop detaining people solely because they are taking pictures.

The suit alleges that several other photographers have also been detained, including an L.A. Weekly freelance photographer and a woman taking pictures for a school project.

Safety and security concerns should not be used as a pretext to chill free speech and expression,” said Mickey H. Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Assn.

richard.winton@latimes.com


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